The Four-Day Work Week: All the Wage?

Across the world, communities are grappling with worker dissatisfaction, hiring and retention challenges, and new demands in the workplace. To meet the moment, employers are getting creative with the benefits and workplace environments they are offering. One such new trend is the trial of a four-day work week. 

Shorter, fully-paid work weeks are becoming trendy pilots around the country to offer employees greater work-life-balance, more flexibility, and added benefits during a particularly competitive employment market. Models vary, with some employers cutting down from 40 hour weeks to 32, while others maintain the 40 hour structure, squeezed into four days instead of five. Regardless of the model, here, we look at some broad findings of such trials and break down some of the advantages and risks of the adjusted schedule.

WIRED recently contextualized the history of the broadly accepted 40-hour work week and the increasing momentum to change it:

Reduced working hours have long been a demand from labor; unions won reductions from six days a week to five in the early 20th century, and the US Fair Labor Standards Act enshrined the 40-hour workweek in law in 1938. But while productivity has shot up roughly threefold since then, pay has risen by only about half that amount, according to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. The length of the workweek has stayed largely the same.

The pandemic has worsened that scenario around the world. A year into Covid-19, the job posting site Indeed found that half of workers it surveyed felt burned out, and two-thirds said burnout had increased during the pandemic. The solution, some tech companies hope, lies in the four-day working week.

On June 13, London made history and embarked on the largest trial of a four-day, fully-paid work week. CNN reported on the monumental experiment:

Thousands of UK workers are starting a four-day work week from Monday with no cut to their pay in the largest trial of its kind.

The pilot, which will last for six months, involves 3,300 workers spanning 70 companies, ranging from providers of financial services to a fish-and-chip restaurant.

During the program, workers receive 100% of their pay for working only 80% of their usual week, in exchange for promising to maintain 100% of their productivity.

The program is being run by not-for-profit 4 Day Week Global, Autonomy, a think tank, and the 4 Day Week UK Campaign in partnership with researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.

Prior, Iceland had conducted the largest trial of this kind between 2015 and 2019, with 2,500 public sector workers working shorter weeks at full-pay.

So, what do we know so far about shorter, fully-paid work weeks?

The advantages

  • The Iceland experiment found “no corresponding drop in productivity among participants, and a dramatic increase in employee well-being.”
  • Having lived through hybrid and telework situations during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have observed that employees can now work “shorter and smarter,” which a shorter work week may better cater to.
  • Employers — and especially mangers — are forced to reevaluate the number and length of meetings, and to more productively use work time… does “could this meeting be an email?” ring a bell?
  • Some workers have found the shift to a more demanding four-day work week vs a more leisurely five day one to be more exciting and invigorating, enjoying the fast-paced nature of the work. For those familiar, think of the thrill of the legislative session — four days a week — as your normal work environment!
  • The obvious benefit: a greater work-life balance: “Workers told WIRED that the extra day off made a profound difference in their lives. One woman used it to care for her sick father. Several people reported feeling healthier because they had more time to exercise. Some used the extra time to travel and pursue hobbies, while others used it to tend to the ‘business of life…'”

The risks

  • According to WIRED, generally, four, ten-hour work days has proven too ambitious, demanding, and “extreme,” risking employee burnout. As Wired noted, “when you squeeze the same amount of work (or more) into less time, work intensifies.”
  • Work culture and relationships shift. One experiment found that “employees took shorter breaks and spent less time lingering for ‘chit chat’ after tea, instead scurrying back to their desks to resume work.”
  • Some studies found that the additional day off offered by the four-day work week became less of a benefit for employees and more of a recovery period: “some workers enjoyed the ‘exhilarating’ and ‘full-on pace,’ while others felt ‘the urgency and pressure was causing ‘heightened stress levels,’ leaving them in need of the additional day off to recover from work intensity.'”
  • Still, one trial found that while employers generally liked the model, stress levels increased significantly in the work place. Once again, I ask those familiar to think of the thrill of the legislative session — four days a week — as your normal work environment…
  • One pilot found that human nature can take over and the need to get work done trumped the benefit of the additional day off: “When employees fail to cram all their work into the shortened week, it spills into their day off.”
  • Lastly, the model works best when all of a society adopts it poses challenges for institutions on the four day model that must interact with others working five-day weeks.

Could the four-day work week come to Maryland? Only time will tell, but as policymakers and employers search for answers to the state’s ongoing employment challenges, they will surely be looking across the pond to see how London’s great experiment turns out.

Read the full CNN article.

Read the full WIRED article.

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