The working week doesn't work anymore. One big change could be better for everyone.
If there's a better way to work that makes you happier and more productive, why not try it?
That's the thinking at Kickstarter, which for the past six months has been trialling a four-day work week with no loss of pay for staff.
"They're happier and more refreshed after a three-day weekend to recharge. And we're more effective as a company," says Wolf Owczarek, director of operations at Kickstarter.
This idea, that employees can achieve the same amount of work in less time, might seem counter-intuitive. But it's could be the key to solving two huge challenges – fixing employees' often-awful work-life balance and simultaneously solving the productivity puzzle that has troubled organizations for years.
Buoyed by a mounting pile of academic research and success stories from Iceland, Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere, companies around the world are abandoning the traditional Monday-Friday model in favor of a four-day work week.
Most of them aren't looking back.
Towards a new way of working
In the UK, Atom Bank introduced a four-day, 32-hour working week with no reduction in pay for staff in November 2021. Almost immediately, the company says it saw a 500% increase in applications for job vacancies, and in August 2022 the organization reported that productivity had increased by an incredible 92%. An employee survey found that 91% of staff were able to accomplish everything they need to in four days.
And now companies are eager to replicate these success stories.
In June 2022, 70 companies in the UK comprising 3,300 employers embarked on what is perhaps the largest workplace experiment in a generation.
Led by 4 Day Week Global, the campaign group currently heading up trials with companies around the world, UK think-tank Autonomy, and researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College, the six-month-long pilots aim to explore whether a four-day work week can positively impact productivity, wellbeing and work-life balance, while also tackling wider socio-economic challenges around job equity and carbon emissions.
The trials are based on the 100/80/100 principle: employees receive 100% pay for 80% of their usual hours, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity. Similar pilots are being run in conjunction in the US and elsewhere; should they prove successful, the results could help bring about the most significant reforms to traditional working models in nearly 100 years.
Halfway through the UK pilots, 88% of respondents reported that the four-day week was working well for their business. Nearly half (46%) said productivity had 'maintained around the same level', while 34% report that it had 'improved slightly', and 15% reported that productivity had 'improved significantly' since implementing a four-day week.
Manchester-based creative agency Amplitude Media is one of the companies participating in the trials.
Managing Director Jo Burns-Russell says the shift to a four-day week has largely been smooth sailing: all projects have remained on track, while staff have enjoyed having more time to pursue their own interests in their free time – all of which ultimately benefits the company.
"Everybody's got a side hustle. Everybody's into different things – which is great, because we're a creative industry and fully encourage and support that as much as possible," Burns-Russell tells ZDNET.
For Amplitude's pilot, staff are given the option of taking either a Wednesday or a Friday off work. Burns-Russell says the choice is roughly a 50/50 split: some people take the Friday off because they want the long weekend, while others take the Wednesday off to work on personal projects.
She says people are using that extra time to work on everything from game design to writing novels and producing a play.
"That's only going to benefit us, because the more they are cross-skilling and the more they are going off and doing all those things, they're going to come back to me as better creatives...Creativity needs space. Creativity needs downtime. You're not always going to be at your most creative when you're sat in front of a computer."
The productivity puzzle
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has been studying the relationship between rest and work for the better part of the past two decades.
Pang, who is currently working for 4 Day Week Global as global programs and development manager, says studies show similar results regardless of profession, from doctors and first responders to teachers, retailers, hospitality workers and creative types.
"In all these cases, what we see is that people in organizations can sustain short bursts of overwork – sort of like 'harvest time' – but over the long run, errors multiply, you get higher levels of absenteeism, people are more likely to cut corners and cheat and they're more fatigued, and so after a couple of months productivity often drops," he tells ZDNET.
"There is also evidence that shows that people doing deep knowledge work can sustain that really seriously for five hours a day, and that's about the most that most humans can really do."
The modern office means that even five hours of focus are hard to come by.
A 2022 survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers by Asana found micro-tasks and admin work command 58% of professionals' typical workday. This leaves just 33% of their time to focus on skilled work and just 9% on working towards major strategic goals.
Clearly, we are not optimizing our time at work. "Basically what that means, in other words, is that the four-day week is kind of already here: it's just buried under all this time-wasting stuff," says Pang.
"If you can clear all that away, lots of organizations can go a very long way to making a four-day week work."
Parkinson's Law is the idea that a task will expand to fill the time available for its completion. If an employee is given one hour to complete a task that only takes 30 minutes, they will use the full hour to complete the task regardless, either by prolonging the task or adding additional layers of complexity to it, the theory states.
Likewise, the more time there is in a work day or work week, the more time will be filled with low-value tasks and distractions. By reducing the number of hours in a week, workers are more likely to focus their attention, and leaders are prompted to be more tactical about meetings and other tasks that pull workers away from their work.
Burns-Russell says Amplitude has been able to operate as "a much tighter ship" since it started being more deliberate about things like meetings and feedback processes. "People say the four-day week has made them better because they are working to a much tighter process, they have a defined window and are given steps on achieving their goals," she says.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is China, where workers work some of the longest hours in the world owing to the 9/9/6 ambition of some companies (working from 9am to 9pm for six days a week, for a total of 72 hours per week). Not only is China one of the most unproductive workforces, but also one that suffers terribly from work-related health issues.
The US is something of an exception, in that it works some of the longest hours and yet remains one of the most productive countries. Still, a 2021 study from the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC) found that one-quarter of knowledge workers' time is lost to productivity drains each week, including 3.6 hours on workplace communications, 2.8 hours searching for information, and 2.2 hours in unnecessary or unproductive meetings.
By these estimates, a US employee contracted to work a 40-hour week is only spending 30 hours doing meaningful work.
While global working hours have been trending downwards for the past 150 years, the advancement of computers, smartphones and software has made work permanently accessible, so we are often spending more time engaging with work, intentionally or otherwise.
While hybrid and remote working have given more flexibility and time back to workers, there's no ignoring the challenges they've brought with them. Presenteeism, for example, seems to be more pervasive as a result of remote working. A study of 20,000 knowledge workers by GitLab and Qatalog in July found that 54% feel pressured to appear visible and active while working remotely, and are working an average of 5.5 hours more a week as a result.
Joe Ryle, campaign director for the 4 Day Week's UK pilot programme, sees the four-day week as a solution to this issue. "We all know people or have all worked in jobs where just turning up, bums on seats is the culture. People spend a lot of their time just sitting around, not being productive," he says.
"The four-day week is about removing that and moving on from that. I think that's where the conversation is moving to – to output-focused work"
Henry Ford is often credited for helping to standardize the five-day work week most companies adhere to today. In 1926, Ford introduced a 40-hour week for workers in his car factories after finding that workers were happier and more productive when shifts were shorter and they had an additional day to rest: at the time, the standard working week was Monday to Saturday.
"We find that the men come back after a two-day holiday so fresh and keen that they are able to put their minds as well as their hands to work," Ford said at the time. "Thus the result of more leisure is the exact opposite of what most people might suppose."
After seeing the success of Ford's scheme, other manufacturers followed, and Monday to Friday eventually became the standard work week. But that was 100 years ago, and not much has changed since then despite the fact that a significant proportion of the global workforce is now knowledge-based and have vastly different requirements to 1920s factory workers.
"All this great automation, new technology, greater productivity we've have over the past few decades hasn't been passed on to workers in terms of more leisure time," says Ryle.
The idea of a four-day week isn't new: Ryle notes that it's been a call of the trade union movement for decades, and there are a number of companies around the world where a four or even three-day week is the standard.
But is has taken a global pandemic to move unstick assumptions and move the conversation forward. The forced pivot to remote working not only proved that other ways of working existed, but in many ways were better, particularly when it comes to age-old issues around productivity and work-life balance.
Work, rest, play
For all the business benefits companies can realize as a result of moving to a four-day week, it's important not to forget the impact it can have on employees' work-life balance and wellbeing.
"Obviously, this is transformative for employees, and you can't lose sight of that," says Joe O'Connor, outgoing CEO of 4 Day Week Global.
O'Connor also believes that it's only through the pandemic that the notion of a four-day week has been able to transition from being "a pie in the sky idea" to something that "feels imminently achievable", with employees valuing their personal needs more than ever.
"Some of the stories that we hear about what this means for people are just incredibly powerful, whether that's being able to do the school pickups, whether that's being able to spend more time with elderly relatives, learning a new skill or having time for a hobby. This is something that makes an incredibly impactful difference for people."
Employees working at companies that have implemented a four-day week also report having more time to relax, get errands done and take part in restorative activities.
Christina Medeiros, trust and safety analyst at Kickstarter and a mother of three, says she is able to fit in doctor appointments, get errands done, or "just have some more fun with my girls, which is perhaps most valuable."
Brooke McDaniels, marketing automation manager at Kickstarter, says having Fridays off means an extra day to exercise and get housework and other life admin out of the way, so that Saturday and Sunday are free to spend as she pleases. "Having the extra day to knock out to-dos that would otherwise take up brain space means I'm able to be more focused on work during the week," McDaniels tells ZDNET.
A fairer work model
Researchers and economists are also hopeful about the four-day week's potential as a tool for closing the gender pay gap.
The 'motherhood penalty' continues to be a huge contributor to the disparity between men's pay and women's. According to a 2022 study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in Britain, the UK wage gap starts off at around 10% before a woman has her first child, growing to 33% by the time that child is 12 years old.
When mothers do return to work, it's often on reduced hours and a lower salary – even though they are often producing the same output as their full-time male colleagues. By universalizing reduced work time across organizations, earning potential can be improved for mothers entering or re-entering the workforce.
"Having a four-day week for everyone would mean obviously there is more opportunity for mothers or women to have a part-time job that's better paid, because if your pro-rata salary is increased if you're doing a two-day week, that's the equivalent to half a full-time equivalent," says India Burgess, head of advocacy at Autonomy.
There's also more opportunity for the redistribution of 'reproductive labour' if both parents are at home for one extra day each week, says Burgess, particularly if these are on separate days of the week, which helps parents more evenly split household chores and caring responsibilities.
Universalizing reduced work time can, therefore, help level the playing field within the workplace by creating more opportunities for women to take on senior leadership positions and freeing up men to take on a greater proportion of caring responsibilities, which continue to fall disproportionately on women.
One element for the four-day work week proving particularly attractive to business leaders is its power as a recruitment tool. As hiring managers fight over a shrinking pool of skilled talent in tech and elsewhere, companies are being forced to find more creative means of attracting and retaining staff.
US company Healthwise implemented a four-day workweek in the summer of 2021 after close to 20 members of its 250-person team left the company in just a couple of months.
Conversations around the four-day work week had already been gathering steam when the company reached out to 4 Day Week Global and economist Juliet Schor, who consulted with Healthwise in getting a pilot off the ground.
The trial was quickly deemed a success. Productivity shot up, staff happiness increased markedly, and attrition plummeted. "The measures that we had with respect to progress on our initiatives and staff satisfaction were really high; we saw a tremendous decline in our attrition and decided to keep it," Healthwise CEO Adam Husney tells ZDNET.
"To me, the most surprising thing is that we have real good commitment from our employees and we're getting more done."
The appeal of a four-day week from an employee perspective is plainly obvious, particularly with burnout and job satisfaction seemingly reaching an apogee. With workers now assigning more value to their wellbeing – and expecting employers to do the same – companies that operate a four-day week can wield it to their advantage in an intense hiring market.
"It used to be the case that companies that were adopting four-day weeks would tell us that is because of productivity and wellbeing. But the number one reason we're seeing now is for retaining staff – they're worried about bring able to hold onto staff and they know a four-day week is popular with their employees," says Ryle.
All this is to say nothing of the potential environmental benefits of a four-day work week, which could – theoretically – cut carbon emissions by reducing the amount of time people spend commuting each week. More research is needed to understand exactly how a reduction in work hours could impact the environment, but one UK analysis in 2021 concluded that that moving to a four-day working week could reduce the country's carbon footprint by 21.3% annually. In her research, Schor notes that countries such as Germany, Denmark, France and the Netherlands are all low in both carbon emissions and work time.
There's also the argument that a shorter working week could encourage more sustainable habits. With less time spent working, people may have more time to cook, reducing their reliance on fast food or junk food. Less time stuck in traffic or walking through congested streets would mean less time exposed to harmful pollutants. A four-day week could give people more time to exercise, volunteer, give back to the community or simply rest – all of which benefit individuals and wider society.
No silver bullet
It's easy to get swept away by the idea of a four-day work week, particularly as the stories coming from those who have implemented it are overwhelmingly positive. But it doesn't come without its share of challenges, and some companies might find that shortening the working week introduces new difficulties that counteract those they are trying to solve.
Customer service, for instance, becomes more challenging if everyone in the office is at home and unavailable on a Friday. If a customer or client has an emergency at 5:30pm on a Thursday, they won't be happy if they have to wait until Monday to get it fixed. A four-day week might also mean less time for informal socialization with colleagues, which plays an important role in workplace culture and the sense of belonging people get from being part of a team.
Then there's the additional risk of work intensification if employers don't adapt work processes and management for a four-day week, which could counteract the wellbeing benefits it is designed to deliver. If bosses suddenly start introducing more granular time sheets or new KPIs that haven't been used before, that's a lot of extra stress on workers.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing the four-day week is the threat of creating more inequality. While knowledge workers might find it easy to drop a day from their working week, it would be considerably more difficult – if not impossible – for certain sectors.
Ryle acknowledges that a four-day week isn't a magic solution that will solve all the problems in the economy. "It's not going to scrap zero-hours contracts, which give workers really insecure work and are designed to make it very hard to improve the rights of workers," he says.
"It's very difficult to implement something like that on a sector-by-sector level – it does need to be looked at from above as part of a national policy."
For those companies who have implemented a four-day work week and made a success of it, is there a possibility that productivity could backslide over the long-term? Perhaps. A four-day week is a powerful incentive for workers to work harder, particularly if there's a risk of it being taken away. Being the case, the UK trials could be painting an overly positive assessment that might not translate into long-term results.
It's something that employers will have to consider, but the evidence so far suggests that the gains in leisure time employees get from a shorter working week go beyond the short-term, particularly when you look at the companies that have been operating a shorter working week for years and have continued to see positive outcomes.
Burgess, who herself works a four-day work week, says the idea is hard to argue against. "For business, especially since COVID, there's been a lot of emphasis on mental health and wellbeing," she says.
"I think a lot of these have tinkered around the edges of people's stress and overwork, so I think a lot of organizations have seen the success of a four-day week in other organizations around the world, and are saying, 'OK, this could actually make a material difference to our worker's lives [and] should really only have a positive impact on our business.'"
Companies involved in the UK trials have been clear that they would scrap a four-day week if it became detrimental to employees. Presumably, the same would be true if this happened six months, one year or five years down the line: businesses would have no desire to carry on with something that harmed productivity, retention or revenues when they had a tried-and tested alternative in the five-day week.
The worst situation would be for employers to try nothing at all, or allowing the current culture of overwork and digital overload to persevere. "There is nothing that companies lose, either during periods of economic growth or during recession, by adopting a four-day week and the benefits are going to come regardless of where you are in the economic cycle," argues Pang.
"Managing the transition is a challenge, but it's pretty clear to everyone that, over the long-run, the enduring challenges of burnout, gender disparity et cetera are things that you cannot solve by increasing working hours."