Four day work week


25th August, 2022

Productivity and performance: The four-day work week

Reducing the working week by one day is gathering steam in many places worldwide, but what are the benefits versus the challenges for employers exactly?

New research finds that Australians might be the most burnt-out workers in the world. The consequence is huge – last year, burnt-out Australians were considered a risk to the economy, costing taxpayers $11 billion.

For businesses, burnout and demotivated workers mean higher staff turnover, decreased productivity and severe financial loss.

In response, thousands of companies, including Amazon, Kickstarter and Lime, have adopted a four-day work week.

With an extra day off, workers will presumably have more time for their out-of-work tasks and recreation and be more productive at work.

How did we end up here? The history of the five-day work week

For decades, working five days a week has been the norm. In the 1920s, most businesses worked a six-day week with an average of 50 hours. But in 1926, Henry Ford kept his employees’ wages the same and adopted a five-day, 40-hour work week to offer workers more leisure time and “open our way to still greater prosperity”.

Ford’s shift inspired many other companies to follow suit and the five-day work week became the norm. But nearly 100 years on, is a five-day working week still relevant and, more importantly, is it the most productive or efficient operating model?

READ: NZ business hails four-day work week a ‘resounding success’

In the modern world, work looks different. Here’s how.

More women are working outside of the home

Despite parents spending twice as much time with their children as they did in 1950, it’s more usual for both parents to work – in 2020, women held almost half of all paid jobs in Australia, compared to around 30 percent in 1966. That means families balance the needs of children, work and other responsibilities.

We struggle to switch off

There is little division between home and work life. Many people will come home and continue working, catching up on paperwork or answering work emails and phone calls.

Productivity is on the decline

We’re busier than ever yet less productive. Research shows that Australia’s productivity has stalled over the last 17 years, and it’s not improving.

Working longer hours doesn’t result in greater productivity

According to 2015 data from the OECD, Mexico was ranked the least productive country, with an average working week of 41 hours. Luxembourg, with a working week of just 29 hours, was ranked the most productive.

Stated benefits of the four-day workweek

The logistics of a four-day work week are still being decided, but generally, there are two ways organisations are approaching it.

While maintaining the pay of a five-day work week, some companies simply expect workers to achieve the same output in 32 hours a week. Others ask workers to continue working 40 hours over four days.

Organisations who’ve already shifted to the four-day week say the biggest benefits are:

More money into the economy

Studies show a strong correlation between leisure time and consumer spending. The more time we have off, the stronger our economy could be.

Increased productivity

Already, thousands of companies around the world have trialled a four-day work week, with most reporting positively: better work-life balance, job satisfaction and boosted employee productivity.

Reduced operational costs

Closing the office doors for a day cuts a big chunk of operational costs for an employer. Plus, it saves everyone the cost of commuting, parking and childcare for parents.

Fewer absences

Employees taking fewer sick days has been repeatedly reported as a perk of a shorter working week. When staff are less burnt-out, they put more energy into their workday and spend more time on wellbeing, like home cooking and exercising.

Improved talent acquisition

Early adopters of this new way of working see this as a key driver of talent acquisition and retention. Unemployment is at an all-time low, and competition for skilled workers is fierce. Offering an attractive work-life balance with flexibility continues to be the most important aspect in getting and retaining the best talent.

READ: How leaders can best approach the ‘war for talent’

Happier communities

The most productive countries (based on their GDP per hour worked) work the least hours and are also repeatedly listed as the happiest countries in the world.

Potential drawbacks of a short workweek

Of course, a four-day work week won’t suit all organisations, and there are a few downsides to consider:

Risk of lowered customer service

Being unavailable to customers three days a week risks the continuity of customer service.

May cause more stress

Compressing five days’ work into four might make some people more productive, but others may find it stressful, especially if supporting systems are messy and unorganised.

Unsuitable to some businesses

Some industries can work flexibly, while in others, it’d be near impossible to achieve the four-day work week.

Too much admin to organise

Implementing such drastic changes requires an administrative effort, and some businesses may find this too onerous to justify the shift.

Getting the balance right for today’s workforce

It’s important for business leaders to acknowledge that we’re still operating under a system with roots established over a century ago in the smoky air of the industrial revolution.

Work, workers and expectations are different – and our conditions need to be, too. Whether that means implementing a four-day work week, offering more flexibility or something less substantive, the time has come for a refreshed approach.

Those who lead the charge towards the new work paradigm will find they win the talent war, maximise staff retention and watch productivity skyrocket.