Will a Four-Day Workweek Become the New Norm?
Workspan Daily
July 14, 2022
Key Takeaways
  • Global movement. In June, thousands of employees across 70 companies in Britain started the first day of a four-day workweek, as part of a pilot program organized by the nonprofit groups 4 Day Week Global and 4 Day Week UK Campaign, and Autonomy, an organization that studies the impact of labor on well-being
  • Companies are hesitant. Although conversations continue to grow, a WorldatWork pulse poll revealed that 75% of respondents said their organization was not considering implementing a four-day workweek.
  • Pros and cons. Companies that have implemented a four-day workweek show increased productivity and improved work/life balance, but there are some challenges, such as the issue of rewards and decreased work coverage.
  • More studies needed. Data-driven decisions could encourage more companies to implement a four-day workweek.

In June, thousands of employees across 70 companies in Britain started the first day of a four-day workweek, as part of a pilot program organized by the nonprofit groups 4 Day Week Global and 4 Day Week UK Campaign, and Autonomy, an organization that studies the impact of labor on well-being.

According to the New York Times, researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College will assess its effect on productivity and quality of life over a six-month trial and announce results in 2023. 

More than 3,300 workers in banks, marketing, health care, financial services, retail, hospitality and other industries in Britain are taking part in the pilot, the organizers said. 

Joe Ryle, the UK campaign director, told the Times that data would be collected through interviews and staff surveys, and through the measures each company uses to assess its productivity. 

Speaking with WorldatWork, Ryle said feedback so far has been positive, while noting that it’s still early in the pilot phase. In the end, the goal of the program is to have the majority of the companies fully adopt a four-day workweek and help make a case for government intervention, so it can be a “reality for everyone.”

A North American trial already started in April of this year, with 38 companies in the U.S. and Canada on board. Participating organizations include crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and a number of tech companies. In October, more companies in the U.S. and Canada are expected to join the global campaign. Sign-ups are currently taking place for the first phase of the pilot program, which includes workshops, mentoring, networking and access to research.

Is this an indication that a four-day workweek will become more common in the workplace? According to a recent WorldatWork pulse poll, that might not be the case.

The poll was conducted over a 14-day period starting on June 13, where a total of 203 responses were received. Seventy-five percent of respondents said their organization was not considering implementing a four-day workweek. The top barriers included management not being onboard (52%), business needs being missed (47%), and unable to fairly implement across roles (39%).

A Risky Move

Although conversations around a four-day workweek are increasing, some U.S. employers are still reluctant to embrace the idea. 

“We know that innovative rewards approaches help employers to differentiate themselves but typically employers want to do so in a manner that manages and controls risk to business operations,” said Alicia Scott-Wears, director of total rewards content at WorldatWork.

Maria Amato, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry, said the hesitation could be due to inertia.

“Big companies don’t move quickly,” she said. “There’s risk aversion and the question of whether all of the work can get done. There’s also not widespread proof of concept that a four-day workweek will be effective. In addition, it’s a long-standing U.S. belief that the more we work, the more valuable we are.”

Even lawmakers are hitting dead ends.

In May, a proposal from California Democrats to institute a statewide four-day workweek for hourly employees was shelved. According to the Wall Street Journal, Evan Low, the Democratic state assembly member who co-wrote the proposed legislation, said the bill failed to advance after the California State Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee declined to set it for a policy hearing, effectively ending the bill’s chances of progressing in the current legislative session.

The WSJ reported that the proposal would have required private-sector employers with more than 500 employees to pay hourly workers overtime after logging more than 32 hours a week. California Democrats introduced the bill earlier this year after a number of recent corporate experiments with a four-day workweek.

Lawmakers decided against advancing the bill, given there was too little time to fully study its implications before taking the next legislative step, Low said.

But it’s not impossible.

Amato shared that Korn Ferry worked with a national retailer on a project to enhance employee retention while still being cost neutral. When corporate employees were asked if they would prefer a pay increase or a four-day, 40-hour workweek (with the same responsibilities), they were willing to trade off $830/annually in exchange for the reduced work week.

The four-day, 40-hour workweek was by far the most popular option with employees — providing more than $300 additional value over even a potentially more flexible daily schedule to be negotiated with managers, such as working off-cycle hours.

Part of the value to employees of the four-day work week, Amato said, is that all their colleagues are off at the same time, so work does not “pile up” during the time that they have off. Korn Ferry saw similar patterns with other clients, in terms of employees valuing paid corporate shutdowns (often at the end of December or over the summer) even more than the equivalent number of additional paid vacation days.

In Broken Bow, Okla., a Tyson Foods plant started a four-day workweek in January, with good results, while Tyson Foods plants in New Holland, Pa. started offering a three-day workweek that pays employees for the 27 hours they work (and the other nine hours they don’t). The total of 36 hours per week makes them full-time employees, entitled to an array of benefits, most notably health insurance — medical, vision and dental, according to LancasterOnline.

Whether or not a four-day workweek is effective remains to be seen, but in today’s environment, there are some pros for adopting the model.

“Workers are experiencing burnout and diminished productivity like never before,” Amato said. “If we stepped back and looked at the type of tasks we are doing, most would agree there are some efforts that really don’t produce reward. If adopting a four-day workweek, an analysis of focusing on worthwhile efforts, while letting non-worthwhile efforts go could actually make us more productive in the long run.”

Still, Amato also sees challenges that could arise.

“For many professionals, our jobs aren’t even doable during a five-day workweek, much less a four-day workweek,” she said. “Then, there is the issue of rewards. Would workers keep 100% of their salary/benefits? Then, there’s the issue of the ‘haves’ vs. the ‘have nots.’ What about those who can’t work a shortened schedule, such as clinical staff who don’t have [that] option? There is the option to stagger employees’ days off, but that could impede collaboration as you may need an immediate answer from a colleague, but they have the day off. Also, client needs may arise when people are away from the office, leaving that need unfulfilled or the worker having to put time in when they are supposed to be away.”

Overall, those in HR should continue to keep an eye on programs like the 4 Day Week Global Campaign.

“It is great that these studies are occurring as there has been talk of growing the four-day workweek concept for years and it keeps being revisited,” said Scott-Wears. “Perhaps the outcome of these studies will help give the evidence needed for data-driven decisions to implement a four-day workweek in more companies.

“Those that have experimented with it have mostly reported positive findings including lowered employee stress, better ability for employee to balance home and work life and all without sacrificing productivity; that’s some well-rounded winning for an employer in a tight labor market.”

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