Not all it's cracked up to be
It’s not that easy, experts say – there is a tipping point where the costs start outweighing the benefits, even with a four-day work week.
The Swedish and New Zealand experiments mentioned above generated lots of headlines at the time – but we seldom hear about their aftermath. For example, Treehouse, a US online education company in Portland, Oregon, ended up reverting back to a “normal” 40-hour week after testing out a four-day scheme. Like many companies, Treehouse faced cutbacks and redundancies – and it was not a good look to have to lay off some workers while the rest continued to work four-day weeks.
Treehouse marketing director Megan Dorcey told BBC Capital that a standard five-day week, eight hours a day, also fostered better collaboration for the entire team (which is distributed across time zones in the US). Plus, customers wanted to be able to get service during standard business hours – another strike against a truncated work week.
As for the Swedish experiment at the Svartedalen care centre? It, too, didn’t last. (Mostly because it was designed to be temporary, but the results suggested such a scheme isn’t sustainable.) Henrik Dahlberg, press manager at the city of Gothenburg, says that it is back on the 40-hour work week.
Why? In order to let everyone work six hours a day, the care centre had to hire extra staff to keep up with the work — which cost more money. This scheme and others like it hit the local government’s budget, adding to the defecit within the welfare sector. “Considering that, it is hardly realistic to suggest drastic cuts in working hours,” Dahlberg says.
Dahlberg says that Left party leadership in the government has been pushing for more such trials, but the lack of trained staff and other economic conditions will make that unlikely. Dahlberg does point to a nearby Toyota plant that switched to a six-hour workday 13 years ago and is still on that schedule, however, as well as a department a university hospital that has done the same.
While cost is a large factor, there are other considerations, too.
Haar, of the New Zealand study, suspects diminishing returns would set in if you asked workers to show up less than four days a week – while slightly more workers would have job satisfaction working three days a week, the productivity hit just wouldn’t be worth it. “My gut says that the reduction of work time and maintaining efficiency might end at five days’ work into four,” Haar says.
Oxford professor De Neve agrees. Cutting more work days or hours “will become less and less and less impactful”, he says. By going from five to four days, “they’ve found that sweet spot already.”
As for long-term implementation at Perpetual Guardian? A spokesperson says the company has yet to make a decision on whether to make the four-day work week permanent – the board is still reviewing the results of the study and deliberating.
So, we can likely expect to see even more attempts to test out shorter work weeks in industries where it’s possible: more days off with fewer days to get it all done. We need to test Keynes’ hypothesis, after all.
“These options are more available and taken by more employees,” De Neve says. “This is far from a gimmick.”
Bryan Lufkin is BBC Capital’s features writer. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin.
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