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Can a 4-Day Work Week Work?

An interview with
A business man sits in a dark office alone, with one light on above him.

The biggest 4 day work week trial in the world is underway in the U.K. It involves more than 70 companies ranging from large multinationals to local shops. The trial is designed to assess the impact of working a four-day week on employees’ well-being, companies’ productivity and environmental footprint.

Employers in the trial agree to pay 100% of pay for 80% of time, in return for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output. Joe O’Connor is the CEO of 4DWGlobal, which is running the trial. He says that the pandemic was the game-changer.

O’CONNOR: The pandemic changed the way firms look at work from every level. We’ve seen it at the leadership level, where leaders are now looking at the four-day week as a vehicle for a competitive advantage. We’re seeing it at the management level, where managers are much more open-minded to this idea post-COVID. Particularly in those sectors that had the remote working transformation, this feels like less of a revolutionary step and more of a logical next incremental step.

And when it comes to workers, something that might have seemed like a pie in the sky idea a few years ago, a four day work week now doesn’t seem like something that’s out of reach. I think people’s expectations around what is a reasonable balance between life and work have been altered forever. The value that people place on having that extra time for family, for community, for time to learn new skills or to take up new hobbies, the pandemic has really, I think, changed people’s thinking quite significantly in that regard.

Burnout Is a Critical Issue

BRINK: With lots of people not even going into the office, is the idea of a four-day workweek still relevant or are we really moving toward something that’s completely blurred between work and home?

O’CONNOR: I think it’s more relevant because the evidence points to the fact that you can move remote or move to hybrid and maintain productivity and maintain performance and continue to deliver company goals.

But while the ability to work from home or work remotely brings a lot of very valuable social and family and cultural benefits for people, it does not address the issue of burnout, and it does not address the issue of long hours.

What the four-day work week does is it forces us to rethink how we work in a way that enables and empowers people to identify, how can we work smarter? How can we get more efficient in order to deliver the same output with fewer or more efficient inputs? 

We already know that the average office worker is only truly productive for three hours a day. We already know that about two to three hours a day in most knowledge type roles are lost to poor meeting discipline, distractions and interruptions in the work day, outdated processes and poor use of technology.

The four-day work week provides a framework to address these challenges and inefficiencies and rewards employees with this additional time. It really powerfully aligns company interest with employee interest that I think can be quite transformative, both for the business and for its people.

Not Replacing Flexible Working

BRINK: If people are not actually in the office, is it going to be harder for individuals and for HR to ensure that people are only working a four-day week? 

Sometimes people confuse the four-day work week for eliminating all flexibility. Most people in a five day work week — when there’s a crisis, when there’s a deadline — recognize they may need to work some evenings or do a couple of hours work on a Saturday.

The four-day work week is not saying you eliminate all of that flexibility. It’s saying we need to change to move the needle on the standard expectation. In other words, from a leadership perspective, it’s about setting really clear boundaries in order to facilitate this culture change. 

Does this mean that if you run a bank and your regulator looks for a meeting on Friday, and that’s your day off, you take that meeting? Well, of course you do, in the same way that you most likely would’ve taken that meeting if it was on a Saturday when you’re working a five day week.

The early movers and the early adapters, the greatest benefits will flow to them when it comes to recruitment and retention.

But do you enable or allow a culture where non-essential email is being sent out by your managers to employees on a day that they’re not supposed to be working if that can wait until Monday? Then no. That’s the kind of thing that does need to change.

BRINK: Do you think that this could get even lower to a three-day work week?

O’CONNOR: Well, who knows? We all are probably familiar with John Maynard Keynes’s prediction a century ago that by now we would have the kind of advances in technology and advances in productivity that we’d all be working an average 15-hour work week. 

Who knows what the level is in the future? What I can say with certainty right now is that we have the productive capacity and technological tools right now to deliver in four days what we used to do in five. 

Potential Social and Environmental Savings

BRINK: What are your experts looking for during the trial; what is it that they’re trying to assess and then create research for?

O’CONNOR: There are three main components. We’re looking at company metrics, so company performance metrics, which would include revenue, productivity, employee turnover in terms of number of resignations and resignation intent, absenteeism, sick leave. 

We’re then looking at employee sentiment variables, such as well-being, burnout, stress, life satisfaction, job satisfaction, loyalty to the company, and how this is impacting people’s work-life balance. We’re doing some time-use diaries to figure out how people are spending the additional time.

The third component is the more social aspects, and we’re really focused on two areas. The first is the ecological impact. Both at the company level and at an employee level, what’s the impact on carbon emissions? Does reduced commuting and reduced energy use in buildings drive down emissions at a company level? 

And then, gender equality. What impact does this have on household distribution of labor? Does it mean that there’s a greater balance of caring and domestic responsibilities in the home and, in turn, a greater balance within the workplace? 

The risk of trying this and it not working out might not be greater than the risk of not engaging with this. Certainly in a lot of industries like tech, IT software, professional services and your biggest competitor doing it first — I think that maybe the balance of risk has shifted for a lot of companies.

BRINK: Because it’s seen as providing a competitive edge in recruitment?

O’CONNOR: In recruitment and retention. Atom Bank in the U.K. saw their job applications go up 500% since they introduced the four-day work week. Healthwise, who are a nonprofit specializing in health care information and services in Boise, Idaho, with about 300 employees were shedding staff last June and July. They had a huge turnover problem. 

They introduced the four-day work week almost as a crisis measure back in August, and their employee attrition has pretty much hit the floor. I mean it’s nonexistent. The early movers and the early adapters, the greatest benefits will flow to them when it comes to recruitment and retention.

Joe O’Connor

CEO at 4DWGlobal

Joe O’Connor is the chief executive officer of 4Day Week Global, a not-for-profit company supporting organizations from a diverse range of industries worldwide to trial or transition to reduced-hour, output-focused working. Joe is currently based in New York City, where he is leading the research project on work time reduction as a visiting scholar at Cornell University.

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