Surprised. Impressed. Envious. These are the three immediate reactions I get from people when I tell them that I have shifted my company to a four-day work week.
The fourth reaction – usually from people who work for large corporates – is a wistful dismissive that this would never happen in their company.
It’s a pity that the last reaction is so widespread and such a natural knee jerk reaction from corporate workforces, but also telling. The thought of breaking the mould of a 9 to 5, 40-hour workweek seems like sacrilege, but a few, forward thinking companies, as well as some countries, are already either taking the plunge, or are busy trialling it.
Iceland was the first country to trial a shorter working hours. Between 2015 and 2019, 2500 government workers, across diverse sectors had their traditional 40-hour workweek reduced to either 35 or 36 hours, with the same pay.
Across all sectors productivity either remained the same or, in many cases, improved. The overwhelming feedback from the workers was that the reduced work hours forced them to assess, and manage, their workload more carefully in order to enjoy the reward of additional free time. The workers were not only happier, but work processes were streamlined and more efficient.
Spain has just launched a three-year pilot project, while Germany is also considering implementing a shorter work week, specifically to stem job losses in their automotive industry.
In terms of multinational companies, Microsoft Japan has already completed their trial, which showed a 40% boost in productivity, while Unilever New Zealand is currently on a year-long trial that ends in December. Kickstarter in America will implement their shorter workweek in 2022.
The movement has started. And if you add the, now entrenched, work from home mindset, you can see the old corporate rule book unravelling.
The eight-hours-per-day, 40-hours-per-week template we are now breaking free from had its origions in the late 19th century, when labour unions were trying to reduce the 80+ hours factory workers were being forced to work. In the 1920’s Henry Ford then introduced the 5-day workweek, which was then incorporated into the American Public Contracts Act of 1936, which went on to become the 20th century office worker template.
Why then are we still using the same template in the 21st century?
The case for a shorter workweek
Apart from imposing a turn of the century, factory worker template in a digital era, there is overwhelming research that shows how outdated this template is.
A 2014 Stanford University study found that working 35 hours per week is the tipping point before productivity declines, while experts suggest we should only be working 6 hours per day. A typical day in a 40-hour workweek just isn’t set up for efficiency: more so if you are tethered to a computer screen. Your energy cannot be sustained for eight hours and lockdown has ensured most people are working longer hours when working from home.
A big part of my decision to move to a 4 day workweek was to improve the emotional wellbeing for my team. The pandemic has been stressful for everyone, in so many ways. So while I can’t prescribe what everyone should do on their extra day off, the official company policy is to provide a free day for personal development or self-care.
It stands to reason that when people have a good work-life balance, they will be happier and therefore work more productively and efficiently. A decade long study on Swedish workers found that reduced working hours had a positive effect on restorative sleep, stress, memory difficulties, negative emotion, sleepiness, fatigue and exhaustion.
The knock-on effect for employers is obvious.
Measuring productivity differently
While most of the research findings for reduced working hours keep emphasising improved productivity, it is also the obsession with “productivity” that is keeping companies from providing their workforce with more downtime.
How productivity is measured is also tied to a post-industrial revolution era. Workers were paid for their time, and still are today, but not all time in an office is productive.
In a digital era we should rather be measuring output and outcomes.
For example: instead of instructing a marketer to publish two blog posts a week, wouldn’t it be preferrable to tell them to increase web traffic by 5%? Any busines owner would see the latter as a preferred outcome.
All the knee-jerk reactions to my company’s 4-day workweek policy are based on viewing work as an exchange for time, as well as the deluded notion that if workers clock in and out at a prescribed time, that time spent (under the watchful gaze of a helicopter manager) will be productive.
A 4-day workweek requires a different mindset and new operational processes. If the pandemic has decoupled “work” from “place of work” then isn’t it also time to discard a century-old template of workforce management?