The Pros And Cons Of A Four-Day Work Week

The popularity of the four-day workweek is popping up again in companies around the world. Countries like New Zealand, Spain, and the UK have been piloting four-day work weeks for almost a year now. The concept isn’t new, in fact, in 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that people would work as few as 15 hours a week by 2030. We’re not quite there yet, but maybe we’re headed to a different way of thinking about the “traditional” work week. Maybe, across industries, we are ready to move to a focus on output rather than hours worked. Parkinson’s law is the adage that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. Maybe that’s what we’re doing and maybe now is a good time to revisit our position.

This debate is just part of the larger debate about the future of work. Remote, In-office, hybrid, flexible schedules, and four-day work weeks are being discussed and implemented to help bring about a better work-life balance and early data tends to suggest that the four-day work week is leading to higher productivity than the five-day work week.

This makes sense because, from a psychological perspective, the optimal amount of intense cognitive work time is no more than four hours each day (Anders Ericsson). And of course, we all know the law of diminishing returns; stating that profits or benefits gained from something will represent a proportionally smaller gain as more money or energy is invested in it.

But are all (or the majority) of jobs realistically able to move from hours worked to output achieved?

Salespeople generally always operate from an output perspective. The number of hours worked is irrelevant. It is about what is achieved as far as hitting sales goals that matter. Newer reps to the game and less experienced, generally have to work those 80-hour work weeks to generate the results. But, as experience is gained, they’re able to work more realistic hours and generate higher sales numbers. Does this translate to other industries/positions?

Years ago I had a sales rep who wanted to start her family but also wanted to keep working. She asked if she could work 3 days per week vs. 5 and take the requisite salary and benefits cut to do that. Instead of going through all the corporate hoops that required a move like this, likely ending in rejection, I just told her to work what she wanted/needed and we’ll see what her sales results showed and we’d take it from there. What happened was several straight years of president’s club and higher sales revenue than before she had her family and was working full time. Years later, this became a standard company benefit offered to reps who wanted both a family and a professional sales career.

So, sales positions are an easy yes, I think. But what about more typical blue-collar hourly workers? Is it possible for a manufacturing person to work four-day work weeks? Actually, it’s already being done. There are two approaches to this, either a 4/10 (four 10-hour days) and a 32-hour work week without making up the extra eight hours. Several companies are either testing it or have moved to this model already including Unilever, Microsoft, and Perpetual Guardian to name a few.

Other occupations have been using this approach for years. Doctors, nurses, police, fire, and other first responders have been doing 4/10’s for a while.

Many seem to be seeing a positive upside to this and little or no decrease in output, and some with increased output. It makes sense in that if you set your KPIs to output rather than hours, the company maintains its production output and the employees benefit from additional rest and a higher motivation to get more done in less time.

It doesn’t seem to work everywhere though, although there doesn’t seem to be a consensus yet on why. Perhaps it’s a management/scheduling thing. Perhaps the companies that struggle with this don’t set proper KPIs and metrics to manage the program. Maybe the goals of the program and the expectations are not communicated to the employees by management. I’m not sure and I’m not seeing a consistent pattern as to why this fails in some companies and succeeds in others, but I suspect it is due to setting and communicating expectations and then measuring the results, providing feedback in real-time.

How about you? What are your thoughts and experiences with companies that have moved to a four-day work week and succeeded or failed? I’d love to hear more cases for and against.