Thank God it’s Thursday. Making the case for a four-day workweek

Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian, says a four-day workweek had positive results for his business and his staff.
Register now

Americans are widely credited with working longer hours than their global counterparts, and the constant demands of technology and 24/7 communication mean work is harder to turn off.

But a growing number of companies and workplace experts are pushing back against the relentless pace of work, suggesting the four-day workweek is not just the key to happiness, but the answer to creating a more productive workforce.

“Employers are much more aware that there is a work-life balance that employees seek,” says Ryan Gatto, district president for Robert Half, an employee staffing agency. “Employees have been able to prove that they can be just as productive in a condensed week because people are looking to have a healthy balance between your professional life and your personal life.”

While the policy has made headlines recently, with Microsoft Japan reporting success with the revised schedule, shifting to a shorter week has been a workplace prediction for decades. In 1956, then Vice President Richard Nixon predicted the four-day workweek would eventually become part of work culture.

But Americans have traditionally been overworked. In the early part of the 20th century, employees were expected to work six or seven days a week for 10 hours or more, and workers had little protection or rights. In one devastating incident in 1911, 145 workers were killed in a fire because they were trapped inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The factory owners had locked their employees in the building to keep them working.

In 1914, the Ford Motor Co. made a surprising decision for the period: announcing it would pay its male factory workers a minimum wage of $5 per eight-hour day, a rise from the previous rate of $2.34 for nine hours. In 1926 Ford became one of the first companies in the country to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week.

But it would take decades of lobbying and organizing, along with legal changes, before other employers would do the same. The 40-hour workweek became the standard in 1940, and even now a majority of employers expect their workers to adhere to a Monday through Friday schedule.

But with burnout rates on the rise and workplace productivity losses costing money, employers may want to consider transitioning to a condensed schedule.

While just 15% of employers currently offer this schedule, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, the rise of flexible and remote working arrangement as well as advancements in technology and automation are pushing this idea toward becoming reality for more workers.

“With all the tools that we have available for people to work more remotely, employees can lean on technology if they're working from home or if they take one additional day off,” Gatto says.

Andrew Barnes, founder of the New Zealand-based investment advisory firm Perpetual Guardian, was curious about his own company’s workflow after he read a startling statistic that employees were productive for only two and a half hours a day.

His solution? Implementing a four-day workweek at the firm. Employees had the opportunity to take a day off, while still receiving their usual five-day salary.

“I thought if I offered my staff a day off a week, would they change the way they worked so they could be as productive in four days rather than five?” Barnes says.

It didn’t take long to see results: after 12 months, the program was so successful that the firm decided to make it a permanent part of the employee experience.

Almost 80% of the staff at Perpetual Guardian has opted for the four-day workweek program.

“Because we’ve seen the benefits in our own business, we think it’s something worth pushing,” Barnes says. “We got a 40% improvement in engagement, stress levels dropped by 15% and more people said they were better able to do their job.”

Work-related stress plagues 83% of employees, according to data from the American Institute of Stress. Stressed out employees are less effective at work and struggle with mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

“Feelings of overwork can take a toll on healthy behaviors like sleep, exercise and eating, as well as emotional and cognitive well-being,” says Carrie Bulger, a psychology professor at Quinnipiac University. “For most people, overwork also results in some performance issues, like making more errors or taking longer to complete tasks than they normally would.”

Wildbit, a fully remote staffed software company, is going into its third year on a four-day work schedule. CEO Natalie Nagele says the change has improved productivity and employee wellness, while also teaching the organization about the way employees work.

“After the first year, we reflected and all agreed that we had delivered more of our product than we had in previous years,” Nagele says. “We accounted a lot of that to the four-day workweek because we were so intentional in the work that we were doing.”

Employees had to commit to and change certain behaviors in order to meet those goals and make the most out of that third rest day.

“There’s no natural law that says we have to work 40 hours a week,” Nagele says. “We’ve only been doing that a short time, historically. And if anything we should be scaling that down consistently. There’s no reason to hold on to it so tightly like they do in the corporate world.”

Other employers have been experimenting, with promising results. Microsoft Japan saw a 40% increase in productivity when the organization implemented a four-day workweek over the summer.

“Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot,” Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano said in a statement on Microsoft Japan’s website. “I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time.”

Shake Shack announced in November that it would be expanding its four-day workweek test after positive feedback from restaurant managers.

“The recruiting possibilities are huge,” Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti said during the company’s earning call, according to reports. “This is not something you take lightly or roll out too quickly. We are cautious about it. We are excited about it. We’re looking to learn.”

As interest in the success of these programs has grown, Barnes and his business associate Charlotte Lockhart founded 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit platform for like-minded people who are interested in supporting the idea of the four-day week as a part of the future of work. The organization provides employers with research and strategy recommendations for implementing a four-day workweek.

“We developed 4 Day Week Global to be that community and help create a more coordinated repository for information and help,” says Lockhart, who serves as the organization’s CEO.

Not everyone who experiments with the four-day workweek will decide they ultimately want to keep it. Ryan Carson, founder and CEO of the programming company Treehouse, established a four-day schedule for his employees in 2015, but ended up returning to a five day schedule in 2016.

There was a fundamental decline in the work ethic as a result of the reduced schedule, Carson told GrowthLab’s Ramit Sethi. This ended up being a detriment to the business and its mission, he says in a video of their conversation.

“The challenge for many employees is that it's not a one size fits all and it almost needs to be based upon individual performance, individual accountability, and not rolled out as a blanket statement for their entire workforce,” says Gatto, of Robert Half. "By compressing the workweek to four days, you are empowering those that can be responsible and accountable to their work. But, of course, there could be those individuals who take advantage of it and are not as productive."

Even positive results don’t happen overnight. For employers unsure where to begin, Barnes suggests running a trial. During that time, offer a shorter workweek and measure employee productivity and engagement and listen to their feedback.

“The trial is your safe space,” Barnes says. “The worst that can happen is an employer sits down and has a conversation with employees and says, ‘Hey, we’re going to try this and see if it works.’”

Barnes says it gives management the opportunity to work out the productivity benchmarks. It is also a good way of identifying problems in the business that are acting against getting the best productivity.

But, despite the benefits, Barnes and Lockhart still say employers are reluctant to embrace the idea because they can’t see it working at their organization.

And even the employees are cautious at first. At Perpetual Guardian, Barnes said employees were skeptical that the company would actually pay them for five days when they work only four.

“What this is really about is having a very mature and open conversation with your employees,” Barnes says. “There is personal responsibility from both a leadership perspective and an employee perspective.”

Wildbit’s Nagele says the success of the four-day workweek has allowed her to reflect and reassess her purpose and goals.

“My mission is to create a business that services human beings,” she says. “To be able to experiment and say, ‘Hey, can we do the same work in less time and I don’t have to dock anybody’s pay’ and to see it succeed is extremely rewarding. I believe the fulfillment for workers comes from being given the space to do the work that they’re hired to do.”

Additional reporting by Alyssa Place

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.