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Are we heading for a four-day workweek?

Flexibility is key to the future of work.

Allie Nawrat


four-day workweek
Credit: ADRIENNE HULME via Twenty20.

Unleash Your PeopleWhat are the business benefits of working fewer hours?

For decades, working long hours and presenteeism were considered productive, and good for business.

However, the opposite seems to be true. Numerous studies have shown that working overtime actually undermines productivity.

This is because it has a huge impact on employee’s mental and physical wellbeing. If employees are fatigued and burnt out, they are too tired to actually perform to the best of their ability, meaning they take longer to complete tasks.

The pandemic has accelerated change in the world of work and we now find ourselves thinking about whether a four-day working week, or allowing people to flexibly reduce their working hours, is actually feasible.

A four-year trial of 2,500 workers across Iceland is the latest nail in the coffin for overworking.

The study found that reducing workers’ hours from 40 to 35 or 36 a week — without cutting their pay — caused productivity to remain the same or improve. In addition, employee wellbeing and work-life balance increased significantly. Further to this, a shorter week was found to be a good attractor of talent.

As a result of this study, 86% of employees in Iceland are now able to request a shorter working week because of their links to the unions that have pushed for this perk.

Similarly, Spain announced in March that it was experimenting with a four-day workweek of 32 hours over the next three years.

Like Iceland, this will not involve cutting employee’s compensation – but this pilot program will involve a €50 million investment from the government to support the 200 companies expected to participate.

Four-day working week case studies: Microsoft Japan and Shake Shack

While it is interesting that countries are experimenting with shorter working weeks, it is arguably more important when employers themselves take the initiative.

It’s worth noting that there are concerns that working fewer hours actually pushes people to work more informal overtime in order to complete their workload.

The Iceland study shows this won’t happen if employers and teams are proactive about introducing new work strategies that drive efficiency. For example, by having less meetings and ensuring those that are essential are productive – HR tech can help here – cutting out unnecessary tasks and enabling companies to work more collaboratively.

One employer that is leading the way with trialing a four-day workweek is Microsoft Japan.

In August 2019, the Japan unit of the tech giant decided to give its 2,300 employees Fridays of without reducing pay.

This boosted productivity by 40%, as well as made meetings more efficient and workers happier. Some 92% of employees said they liked the shorter week.

Also, employees took 25% less time off during the trial, and electricity use in the office was down 23%.

According to the Guardian, Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano said: “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot.

“I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time.”

Unfortunately, it was clear that this was just a temporary trial, and Microsoft Japan doesn’t seem to have continued this on a long-term basis.

Another employer that has given its employees a three-day weekend is food chain Shake Shack. The company decided to shorten manager’s workweeks to four days at some stores in Las Vegas and found that it helped with talent attraction, particularly women.

Because of the success of the initial trial, Shake Shack expanded the program to more managers across the US, starting with Los Angeles, Dallas, Dallas, San Antonio, and Detroit.

The eventual plan is for it to be available across a third of restaurants in the US; it is not clear if this will be rolled out elsewhere in the world.

Talking to NPR, Shake Shack’s president, Tara Comonte said:

“Corporate environments have had flexible work policies for a while now. That’s not so easy to do in the restaurant business.”

The benefits for Shake Shack and its employees speak for themselves, and the company has decided to rely on technology to perform some tasks normally overseen by managing, such as tracking produce supplies.

As organizations look towards the future of work for their employees and their businesses, they must do more than just consider where their employees work from.

They must also think about when they want to work, and whether or not a four-day week or reducing hours would help drive productivity, and ultimately boost the business’ bottom line.  

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