Here's why companies are considering the four-day workweek

Michael Perchick Image
Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Some companies look to four-day workweeks to fill positions
Companies are beginning to study, and in some cases implement the practice.

The old adage goes "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." But when it comes to a four-day workweek, companies are beginning to study, and in some cases implement the practice.

"We're trying to look fundamentally different on how work gets done, how work gets assigned, how accomplishments are made, how value is created for our clients," said Steven Keith, founder of CX Pilots, a Raleigh-based consulting firm which also has offices in Canada and London.

Keith's company made the switch over the summer, a move that resulted in no pay cuts or benefit changes for employees.

"We consult some of the world's biggest professional services brands on their culture, (and) we were scared of hypocrisy. We can't go into these organizations and consult their leadership on how to build really strong cultures if we don't have one ourselves," said Keith.

They began looking at other companies, both in the US and abroad, that operated under a four-day workweek.

"We started to think through the hypothesis. 'What if? How would we do this? What are the potential impacts? How do we minimize impacts not knowing what is going to happen? ' And we just had a 'let's just do it' mentality," said Keith.

Since the new policy went into effect, Keith said employees now work around 34 hours a week, and while the term "four-day work week" naturally draws headlines, the idea is focused more on allowing employees freedom to work under their schedules.

"We have people that have been analyzing the productivity inside of our company of our people, and some people are way more productive on Friday than they are on Mondays. Some people are way more productive on Saturdays. Because we're a global organization, we need to think through the asynchronous, different time zones of when our people are doing their best work. That's what's most important. It's not the 9-5 time frame, that's a relic of Taylorism, from the early part of the 20th century," said Keith.

While the new schedule has been popular amongst employees, Keith himself is still working six days a week.

"The benefits are indelible, the benefits are it works, it makes everybody happy. There are things behind the scenes - we tripled in size in the last year, and we opened up offices in two other countries, so there's just a lot of stuff that goes into making sure that's relatively seamless. I'm an unfortunate collateral for making these ambitious changes so fast," Keith explained.

As the process is new to CX Pilots, Offset Collective, a Raleigh-based strategic branding agency, has offered a four-day workweek since its inception.

"Going through the stress, the sort of perpetual survival mode that the pandemic and the shutdown put us through, and now we're trending into this recession territory, we're all living at a rate of very high stress. So it's really critical to take the time you need and focus that time on things that are important to you. And not wear overtime as a badge of honor," said founder Ann Powell.

"The objective is if we really do care about our people, and we do, and we're trying to build one of the best cultures out there, we have to give people as much time, free time, across the weekend to enjoy that. Enjoy their families, come back - re-charged," Keith noted.

Powell said the company has also been fully remote, a move in a similar mindset to prioritize employees' time.

"Thinking about how to balance work and life. We're in a culture now that we don't have one-parent (working) families, we have two-parent (working) families with two jobs sometimes, and that extra time that we were spending sort of felt like wasted time. Sitting in the car, getting ready, waiting for traffic, all those kinds of things. The other part of it was COVID was kind of a forcing mechanism for us as well as for everyone. We couldn't go anywhere. And what we found was we were very productive at home, we were able to compartmentalize work, compartmentalize family," said Powell.

"How many business meetings actually get something done? How much idle time is there in the workplace," said Steve Allen, a Professor of Economics at NC State.

The non-profit 4 Day Week Global led a trial of 61 companies across the UK from June to December 2022, involving nearly 2,900 employees. It included two months of preparation, ranging from workshops, coaching, and mentoring. Companies were granted flexibility into its implementation, as long as they did not cut pay, and employees experienced a 'meaningful' reduction in work time. Research was reviewed and analyzed by professors in the US and Europe.

At its conclusion, 56 companies said they planned on continuing the four-day work week, with 18 pledging to keep it full time.

Employees reported improvements to their physical and mental health, sleep patterns, work-life balance, and drops in levels of anxiety and fatigue.

Companies meanwhile said their revenue remained largely flat (increased by 1.4% on average, weighted by company size), though increased by 35% on average when compared to a similar period from previous years. Furthermore, they saw a 57% drop in employees leaving.

"With selection being sort of in favor of the worker, these organizations are going to have to adapt to that," said Keith.

"The companies that are doing it are certainly attracting attention, especially now in a period that's nothing like I've never seen in my life for the labor market," added Allen.

Data remains largely limited, and the bulk of companies that have adopted a four-day work week are private firms, smaller in size. Like remote work, it also isn't feasible for certain industries to implement.

"If you're spending 40 hours a week driving a bus for the City of Durham, there's no give. The bus has got to be driven, and unless you have a cadre of potential bus drivers that has a wide distribution of days they like to work, that's really going to be hard for the buses in Durham to work on a 32-hour schedule for 40-hours of pay. The math just doesn't work well there," said Allen, who believed the four-day work week is better suited for salaried employees.

However, the larger conversation about focusing on productivity will continue.

"Figure out what works for you and for your companies. I think like any trend, it's not the case you're going to adopt it part and parcel - but start listening to ways you can increase pay, decrease hours," said Powell.

"When we were an agricultural economy, it was a seven-day week. Dairy farmers never got a day off. Then we became a manufacturing economy, and it became a six day week, until the (Great) Depression when there was social change and we went to the 40-hour week. I wouldn't be totally surprised if it was the US or some other country, but this could ignite some important social change. And you may see a movement to a four-day week," Allen said.

It's creativity is being tested in different industries. In the fall, a Chik Fil-A in Florida offered a three-day work week, with 13-14-hour shifts. The store's owner-operator reported they received 420 candidates, and have had 100% retention at the management level.

In 2019, Microsoft ran a one-month trial of a four-day work week in Japan, and found sales-per-employee increased by 40% compared to the same month the previous year.