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The realities of the four-day workweek

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A shorter workweek is being hailed as the future of employee productivity and work-life balance. Is it that easy to make work better?
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When Koray Camgöz was granted a four-day workweek, the benefits seemed numerous. The new schedule forced the London-based PR officer to organise his time better. He was still able to meet deadlines and stay on top of to-do lists, while enjoying an extra day off each week. Most importantly, for the recent father, he was able to spend more time with his child. 

His day off rotated between Tuesdays and Wednesdays. In an always-on environment, he still had to be on call for emergencies on his day off, and also had to work longer hours on his working days to compensate. 

“It blurred the lines between home and work,” says Camgöz. “On a Sunday evening, I’d go through my workload and allocate my time as best as possible.” But he says any trade-off was worth it. “I was grateful to be able to spend time with my son I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. And it eased financial pressures: just that extra day at home meant I could save £400 a month in private childcare.” 

However, some senior team members who preferred a conventional schedule were less happy with his working pattern. “I felt it was going well – but that feeling wasn’t matched by my line manager,” says Camgöz. “Professionally, they were seeing less of me, so they thought they were getting less from me.” In the absence of clear feedback, he ended up unsure as to where exactly he stood. Six months later, when he was offered a promotion, there was a condition; he had to return to a five-day schedule. 

Since the pandemic brought unprecedented change to the world of work, there’s been considerable discussion around the four-day workweek. Touted as a panacea for burnout and work stress, businesses and even governments have been experimenting with the idea; preliminary results suggest potential benefits include better work-life balance and improved wellbeing – at no cost to employee productivity. 

But while a workday is chopped from the calendar, the workload, in many cases, remains the same. Faced with a tighter schedule, workers often must adapt to new practices and longer hours. And, as Camgöz found out, a rapid shift to a new working model can throw up issues – particularly if not everyone’s fully on board with the change. That means that while the four-day workweek could bring many positives, for some, there might also be unexpected consequences. 

How the four-day week evolved 

Debates over the length of the workweek are nothing new. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company standardised the Monday-to-Friday pattern; beforehand, the common practice was a six-day workweek, with only Sundays off.

A common mistake is a company saying, ‘We’ll start this on Monday and figure it out as we go along’ - Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

“Henry Ford’s theory was that [working] five days, with the same pay, would increase worker productivity, in that people would put more effort into the shorter workweek,” says Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at US analytics firm Gallup, based in Nebraska.. The theory was largely proven correct: in the decades since, the five-day workweek has become common practice. 

By the 1950s, however, there were calls from labour unions to introduce a four-day week. “People began projecting, if we take out another workday, it’d be even better,” says Harter. But take-up of the four-day workweek has remained slow: by March 2020, a Gallup study of more than 10,000 US full-time employees showed only 5% worked a shorter week.  

However, the pandemic has caused a rethink for some leaders: there has been a huge uptick in the number of four-day workweek trials and announcements. “Recent changes to work have accelerated the four-day movement,” says California-based Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, programme director at non-profit organisation 4 Day Week Global, which advocates for a shorter workweek. “The pandemic has made it clear we can change how we work very dramatically; the Great Resignation has seen companies look to new recruitment and retention tools.” 

There are different four-day workweek models: from cutting one workday, reducing working hours and being paid the same wage; to intense working hours, where five days’ worth of work is crammed into four longer shifts. The former set-up is generally the goal; achieved by a combination of the introduction of new tools and operating practices that boost efficiency and result in a rise in worker wellbeing that fuels productivity. 

But without carefully planned operational changes in place, there is greater risk the latter situation can happen instead. “A common mistake is a company saying, ‘We’ll start this on Monday and figure it out as we go along’,” adds Pang. “That can create big problems down the line.”

Both Jennifer Shepherd and Andy Illingworth say that the extra day off they now get is enormously valuable to them (Credit: Jennifer Shepherd (L) and Andy Illingworth (R))

Both Jennifer Shepherd and Andy Illingworth say that the extra day off they now get is enormously valuable to them (Credit: Jennifer Shepherd (L) and Andy Illingworth (R))

How five days’ work goes into four 

In recent months, as leaders have made some pilot schemes permanent, employees have now become familiar with the pros and cons of the four-day workweek. 

Jennifer Shepherd says switching to a shorter workweek has been “transformative”. Her Durham, UK-based employer, fintech firm Atom, introduced its four-day workweek in November 2021 for all its 430 employees. “Fridays are now a special day I spend with my one-year-old daughter,” she says. 

Andy Illingworth, of design agency Punch Creative, based in Leeds, UK, who has been doing the four-day workweek since 2020, also values his extra day off highly. “Friday afternoons aren’t historically the most productive,” he says. “Now, on a Friday, I can pursue hobbies, play tennis and take long walks. It also gives me more time to build up skills and ideas that I can bring fresh on a Monday morning. I wouldn’t want to go back to a five-day workweek.”  

Yet both Shepherd and Illingworth are aware that getting all their work done in four days, rather than five, can come with a cost. Illingworth’s mandated office hours are now longer by 90 minutes each day from Monday to Thursday. “I work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a 30-minute break in the middle,” he explains. “We’ve had to cut our lunch hour in half. But I feel fresher, more focused and productive working for four days solidly.” 

Shepherd, meanwhile, is adapting to a more intense rhythm of working. “There are still occasions when I panic mid-Thursday afternoon and remember I no longer have another day’s work to complete everything,” she says. “But I now use my time more efficiently. I can work when it’s most convenient: once the children are in bed I can log on and get some ‘deep work’ done while my inbox and chat messages remain blissfully silent.”

We’ve had to cut our lunch hour in half. But I feel fresher, more focused and productive working for four days solidly – Andy Illingworth

Gallup’s research similarly finds both positive and negative impacts of working a shorter week. While employee wellbeing rises and burnout reduces due to a four-day workweek, active disengagement also spikes: workers who are already feeling disconnected from their company become more likely to drift further away if they work fewer days. 

Some workers may resist having a compressed workweek, with potentially longer hours and fewer breaks, imposed on them by an employer. Others may already be working at full tilt, meaning a shorter workweek could make their workload less manageable. “There are some employees who’ll end up trying to cram more work into four days where they previously had greater flexibility to work across five days,” says Harter. “If you get to Thursday afternoon, still haven't finished your work and everyone else has gone home, that can create stress and resentment.” 

Pang says a potential pitfall with the four-day workweek is the impact on teamwork: employees are so focused on getting their tasks done in the tighter timeframe that it extinguishes the spark of collaboration. “Offices can end up feeling like ghost towns,” he adds. However, Illingworth believes such “minor teething problems” can be corrected over time. “Our workplace still has a lively atmosphere,” he says. “Rushing to complete a job on a Thursday afternoon isn’t a regular occurrence.”

For some, working four longer days that buy an extra day off each week will be well worth the trade-off (Credit: Getty)

For some, working four longer days that buy an extra day off each week will be well worth the trade-off (Credit: Getty)

The importance of operational planning

Right now, many firms are looking for new ways to attract and retain the best talent – according to a recent survey of 4,000 workers in the US, 83% want a four-day workweek. This makes it more likely that firms could rush into a shorter workweek, and figure out substantial policy changes on-the-hoof. 

But Pang warns that rather than piling pressure on staff to work more quickly over fewer days, careful thought and preparation are crucial to making the working model sustainable. “I don’t know many companies who do it successfully without radically transforming their daily operations,” he says. “It’s crucial to craft a shorter workweek that’s fairer for everyone – from executives down to frontline workers.” 

Harter suggests a more bespoke working model for each employee – which may include a shorter workweek – may be a better solution than simply imposing a four-day week pattern on all staff members. “A four-day workweek could be the answer for some people,” he says. “But flexible working is generally desired by employees, correlates higher with engagement and wellbeing, and fits into a modern workplace.”  

Camgöz, who ended up accepting the promotion and returning to a five-day schedule, would like to return to a four-day workweek one day, and Shepherd and Illingworth won’t give up theirs. All have discovered, however, that putting the new working model into practice came with trade-offs: whether longer workdays, high-pressure Thursdays or worry over bosses’ views. 

In Camgöz’s case, he realised that making it work would have required better alignment among his goals, the workplace culture and the personalities involved. “The initial decision to grant me a four-day workweek came from a good place, but it highlighted that a lot of thought needs to go into these decisions: on this occasion, perhaps, that didn’t happen.”