How a four-day work week could boost productivity

One way that startups have revolutionized the way we work today is by promoting a healthy work-life balance – long gone are the days where employees are expected to clock in on the dot at 9am and work until 6pm. So it’s no surprise that the four-day work week is being embraced by the startup community.

At the end of last year the French startup Welcome to the Jungle experimented with this idea — just five months later, they were so convinced that they published a manifesto arguing everyone should switch to a four-day work week. Welcome to the Jungle found their experiment actually boosted profitability (even though salaries remained the same as for a five-day work week) and employee satisfaction rocketed.

No wonder tech companies across the board have embraced the idea – from newer startups like, the Ecomm Manager and Administrate to larger companies like Buffer and Kickstarter. Even Microsoft Japan have experimented with the idea.

But what happens when shorter work hours are introduced on a larger scale? In June this year, Iceland released the results of a trial — they wanted to see what would happen when people worked a shorter week. In two major trials, conducted from 2015 to 2019, almost 3,000 workers moved from a 40 hour-week to a 35 or 36 hour working week without any reduction in salary.

This may not sound like a huge sample set, but the 2,940 people who participated equal more than 1% of Iceland’s entire working population. A wide range of workplaces participated, including those with non-standard shift patterns: alongside offices, playschools, social service providers and hospitals got involved. The aim? Not just to improve the workers’ work-life balance, but also to maintain or even increase productivity. 

To call the results “groundbreaking” sounds like hyperbole – after all, this was only a slightly shorter working week, and not a reduction to four days – but stay with us. Even these minor cuts had major effects. Not only did productivity and service provision remain the same or even improve across the majority of trial workplaces, but worker wellbeing rocketed across a number of different indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance.

The trials were so successful that Icelandic trade unions achieved permanent reductions in working hours for tens of thousands of their members across Iceland. Approximately 86% of Iceland’s entire working population have now either moved to working shorter hours or gained the right to shorten their working hours.

Beyond Iceland…

Iceland aren’t alone in their fascination with shorter hours — Spain have agreed to trial a four-day week over the next three years with around 200 companies taking part and workers completing a 32-hour week. The government is picking up the slack: they have guaranteed to make up the difference in salary when workers switch to the four-day schedule so there’s limited risk for employers in participating in the scheme. It’s anticipated that around 3,000 to 6,000 workers will be involved in the project.

In April, the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish National Party would support Scottish businesses to trial a four-day working week if reelected. 

Less hours, more focus

So why does the four-day work week, well, work? Some argue that work expands to fill the time allotted for it — as such, employees are generally capable of carrying out the same amount of work in four days that they might usually perform in five. This was certainly the case at Perpetual Guardian, a company in New Zealand that offers estate management.

According to The Atlantic, Perpetual Guardian asked their employees to figure out a way they could ensure they got the same amount of work done in four days as in five, then implemented the suggestions: lockers for employees to (voluntarily) keep their phones in so they wouldn’t get distracted; shorter meetings; tiny flags that employees could put in their pencil holders to signal to their colleagues when they didn’t want to be disturbed. 

Their 2018 trial was monitored by academics at the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology, and the founder reported a 20% rise in productivity as well as reduced staff stress (down from 45% to 38%) and improved work-life balance (up from 54% to 78%).

Jarrod Harr, the Auckland University of Technology human resources professor who helped oversee the experiment, found that the reward of an extra free day meant employees were deeply motivated to meet productivity targets. “Supervisors said staff were more creative, their attendance was better, they were on time, and they didn’t leave early or take long breaks,” Harr said. Three years later, Perpetual Guardian’s employees still work a four-day week.

No more fake sick days

You might also look to the decrease in absenteeism that accompanies the four-day work week – if employees have enough time to run that errand at the bank or catch up on household chores, there’s no need for fake sick days. According to a 2019 study of 500 British business leaders by the Henley Business School at the University of Reading in England, absenteeism plummeted and productivity increased, with businesses using such a timetable saving a total of £92 billion.

Balancing paid and unpaid work

Another argument might be that well-rested employees are generally more efficient or productive — many people have to perform unpaid care work for relatives, which isn’t generally factored into the working week.

This work disadvantages women and intensifies the gender pay gap: according to Action Aid, women perform 75% of all unpaid care work globally, carrying out on average, four hours 25 minutes of care work per day (in comparison to the average man’s one hour and 23 minutes). By freeing up more hours, this unpaid care work is less likely to encroach onto employees’ weekends and means they can return to work refreshed by a proper break.

The topic is admittedly a complex one — some industries might require employee presence 24 hours a day, or require complicated shifts, making it challenging to offer. But if you’re able to offer your employees a four-day work week, even as a trial, the evidence above suggests it might be the easiest way to increase employee satisfaction without losing profits.

Want more great future-focused articles? Find out why robots could save us from dangerous or boring work and why Industry 5.0 could already be here. Plus, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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