1. The five day working week had its origins in the 19th century and was in common use in western countries by the 1930s, remaining the dominant working model for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. With changing trends in labor and leisure, the five-day week is now being questioned and the four-day workweek is an idea whose time may finally have arrived.
2. Reducing the working week to four days offers both advantages and disadvantages for employers and their workers. It has the potential to reduce business running costs and boost staff wellbeing, but requires careful management to avoid disrupting collaboration or reducing productivity.
3. Pilot projects in major companies and public sector organizations around the world have yielded encouraging results, showing increased productivity and engagement in tandem with reduced stress. In Japan the government has recommended the four-day working week as a national policy.
4. A working week of four days may have differing implications across sectors, business models and workforce sizes. These implications will need to be carefully worked through and individual company systems rearranged or reinforced as necessary to accommodate a new mode of working. A four day workweek could be an excellent choice for some but it may be a viable option for every company.
The concept of the four-day workweek is commanding increasing attention from academic, business and political quarters. In recent decades it has moved from an interesting theory occupying management researchers and ergonomists, to a practical proposition being seriously considered by governments and trialled by businesses around the world, with encouraging results.
Following the upheaval and workforce disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, traditional workplace practices and norms are being challenged and updated, often accelerating existing trends (e.g. flexible, hybrid, or remote working). Business and HR leaders carry the responsibility for strategic decisions to ensure their companies can keep pace with their social, economic and political environment. The four day workweek is a once radical idea which has now gathered serious momentum and a significant evidence base, making it one to watch and potentially scope for your business.
What is a four day workweek?
The four day workweek is an alternative working hours model to the “traditional” five day workweek which is in common use around much of the world. While some people see the idea of working four days per week as a radical suggestion, the five day workweek itself is a relatively new mode of working, with roots in the 19th century and an established history dating only from the 1920s and 1930s.
Throughout history in the western world, the longer standing traditional model was a six day workweek, with one day off for religious observance (Sunday in Christian countries), and sometimes a half-day on Saturday. From the 19th century onwards social reformers, progressive employers and trade unions began to advocate for the five day model, which also gave staff a free Saturday for rest, leisure or educational activities.
Carmaker Henry Ford was one of the first and most famous business leaders to standardize a Monday to Friday working pattern for his workforce in 1926. Ford believed that reduced working hours for the same pay would boost engagement and productivity, and his belief was borne out in the success of the five day workweek for his firm and others who followed.
Similar arguments have been made in favor of reducing the standard workweek further, from five days to four. While a four day workweek means working one day less each week, it does not usually entail a reduced workload. Companies using a four day workweek are usually intending to maintain, if not increase their productivity.
Some businesses might opt for a compressed five-days-in-four working model which does not reduce total working hours, or offer this option to individual workers, but the compressed model is usually not what is being referred to when company leaders or policy makers talk about a four day workweek.
What are the benefits of a four day workweek?
- Increased productivity
- Improved staff engagement is closely linked to improved productivity. When Microsoft Japan trialled a four day workweek in 2019, they observed a 40% boost to productivity. A New Zealand estate planning company, Perpetual Guardian, reported a 20% increase in productivity from their pilot.
- Increased staff wellbeing
- Evidence indicates that working for four days boosts staff work-life balance, wellbeing and morale. This then leads to lower stress levels, less sick absence and greater engagement with work.
- Offering a four day work week, like fringe benefits, can be an important mechanism for attracting highly qualified staff.
- Reduced running costs
- Having staff on site for fewer days can significantly reduce utility bills, furniture wear and tear, and stationery costs. Microsoft Japan reported saving 23% on electricity costs, as well as printing 59% less, during their 4-day week trial. University of Reading research indicated that businesses operating the shorter working week were saving around £92 billion, or 2% of turnover.
- Environmental benefits
- More efficiency combined with less commuting and electricity use can lead to lower carbon dioxide emissions and less waste in a company’s environmental footprint. According to a Henley Business School white paper, employees surveyed estimated that with a four day workweek they would drive a total 557.8 million fewer miles on average each week.
What are the downsides of a four day workweek?
A four-day workweek may not fit every business model, sector or size of company. Nearly 73% of employers have concerns about the idea of a four-day week, with worries about availability for client and customer servicing cited as the principle barrier for 82% of companies. Risks which need to be considered and mitigated could include:
- Disruption to key outputs
- If a company’s success relies on running a constant production line or providing 24/7 client services, then implementing a four day week may be more complex and less desirable than in a business without these features. Särskild, a child welfare services company in Finland, moved back to a five day workweek following a six month trial during which company profits fell to zero.
- Reduced team collaboration
- If staff are only brought together (in real life or virtually) for four days rather than five, this potentially reduces the amount of time they have to share news, information and ideas by a fifth. This could impact team capacity for collaborative working, problem solving and creative thinking.
- To mitigate this impact, businesses should consider the benefits of introducing an asynchronous work environment alongside a four day workweek.
- Increased workforce cost
- Many companies can accommodate a four-day working week through increased general efficiency, shift working, automation of management processes, and intelligent use of IT tools. Others may find that the only way they can keep their production or services running is to hire more staff to ensure all necessary days have sufficient cover. Total workforce costs would then rise in terms of wages, benefits and management.
How to implement a four day workweek within your business
Planning and preparation are key to successful implementation of any new working model, especially one like a four day workweek which shifts some of the most fundamental workplace understandings and practices. Companies should begin with internal and external consultation and scoping to sketch out how a four day week might work in a business of their type, sector and size.
With this theoretical idea of the opportunities and challenges presented by a shorter week, business leaders can then assess what changes would be needed in company systems and structures, how business plan goals might evolve, and what risk mitigation or staff support measures might be required for success (e.g. new IT tools which facilitate more efficient working, improved project management training for staff).
At this stage a trial or pilot of the four day workweek may be wise, running for a limited period or within a discrete working unit so that results can be easily observed and recorded. Quantitative and qualitative inputs from workers, managers and clients should be collected and analyzed.
This evidence can then inform board decisions on whether to introduce the new mode of working across the company and its networks, continue the experiment for longer, or revert to the former model.
Implement a 4 day workweek with Horizons
Horizons has extensive experience in supporting businesses in over 180 countries around the world, no matter how they structure and implement their working week. Contact us today to discuss what a four day workweek could mean for your company and request a no-obligation quote.
Frequently Asked Questions
A four-day workweek can be a good idea for many businesses but requires careful consideration and planning and reflection to ensure that workers are ready, structures and processes are adapted appropriately and risks are sufficiently mitigated. A pilot or trial period of working four days rather than five, can be a useful step, allowing any necessary adjustments and reinforcements before rolling out more widely or stopping the experiment.
A number of countries have seen public or private sector pilots or trials of a 4 day work week, including Japan, Iceland and Belgium, but there are currently no countries who have fully adopted this model on a permanent basis.
Following successful trial of a 35 hour working week in Iceland, a majority of employers removed three hours from the regular working week. UAE observes a standard 4.5 day work week, and Belgium recently introduced a compressed four day week. Major trials are ongoing across 38 companies in the USA, 17 in Ireland and 60 in the UK.