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As a worker in the early 20th century, odds are you’d be grafting a 6-day week.

That is until Henry Ford made the calculated decision to reduce the number of mandatory working days in his automobile factories from 6 to 5.

His fellow industrialists scoffed, but Ford benefitted from an increase in productivity and profits off the back of the move.

Most of us have been working 9-5, 5 days a week since then, despite advancements in technology that many prominent 20th-century economists predicted would have us working 15-hour weeks by now.

This utopia hasn’t arrived for various reasons I won’t go into here, but there is a growing movement to reduce the working week to 4 days. 

In fact, there’s currently a bill sitting in the House of Representatives to legally reduce the working week to 32 hours, so it might be worth getting ahead of the curve here!

A recent study in the UK indicated that a reduction in working days could significantly benefit workers who reported lower levels of stress and took fewer sick days.

From an organizational perspective, they saw no significant drops in productivity and job applications rose 22%. Of the organizations that took part in the study, 92% will continue with the 4-day week.

However, there’s still that 8% that didn’t choose to continue with the 4-day workweek after the trial.

Why is that? 

We decided to gather some evidence and talk to some organizations who’ve implemented a 4-day workweek to discover the benefits and challenges and get some tips for effective implementation.

4-Day Workweek Benefits

So let’s start with the reported benefits.

Increased employee well-being 

Similar to the UK study, the message from employees working a 4-day workweek is that their overall well-being improved.

At Buffer, for example, 73.1% of team members stated that they felt more energized, and 99.1% that they were less stressed.

People reported more time to spend with loved ones, work on personal projects, join community groups, or even gain new qualifications.

A knock-on effect is that people take fewer sick days and leaves of absence, “We have had no long-term sick leave in two years since we started the study,” reported Rita Wittek, People Leader at Homerun.

People are also in a better mental and physical state to tackle their jobs more effectively.

“It’s a virtuous cycle where if you're happy at work, that carries over into your personal life. If you have the flexibility to be healthy, exercise, spend time with your family, and pursue creative ideas, you bring that energy with you back into your work. The 4-day makes room for people to live that idea,” says Stella Garber, Founder of Hoop.

Easier recruitment

Everyone we spoke to said that implementing a 4-day workweek helped them recruit and retain talent.

“We were advertising good, well-paid jobs and getting relatively few applicants sometimes. But since the start of this year [post 4-day workweek implementation] that's pretty much a thing of the past. Now we get a good intake of good quality candidates,” said Adrian Cruden, Head of People at Friends of the Earth.

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Inclusivity

An additional potential benefit is that reduced hours helps level the playing field for parents who reduce their hours to look after children.

“Often in the Netherlands, women cut down their hours after they have a child. And from that moment on, there's a lot of data to show people get fewer promotions, they get fewer raises, they don't have the same chances. So, by leveling the playfield by having everyone work four days, you can also be a more inclusive company,” said Wittek.

4-Day Workweek Challenges

Maintaining productivity

As Buffer discovered, while many people were able to complete their work in 4 days, around 40% were unable to finish it all in that timeframe and so would sometimes have to work into the fifth day.

This highlights the challenge of maintaining the same output in less time.

Scheduling

Certain teams need to be available for a minimum 5 days a week, so work had to be done to ensure that those teams were always available (more on this shortly).

Connectedness

Work is an important social activity for a lot of people and, due to the compressed hours, there were also concerns about becoming “all business, no fun” as Hutch CEO, Shaun Rutland, puts it on their blog.

Tips To Implement A 4-Day Workweek

With the above challenges in mind, here are some best practices to help you make the switch.

Involve your people

Like with any project that impacts people, a good tactic is to involve them as much as possible in its implementation.

“We didn't do a pilot like many organizations did, but we did spend 10 months getting prepared for the change. It's so important that you do lots of consultation and talk to people about what's on their minds and what can help them. It also provided time for people to get into the right psychological space, realign processes, and think about what they could do differently and better,” said Cruden.

He also notes how involving people helped with working out schedules for teams that needed to be staffed 5 days a week.

“We worked through with team leaders and managers to figure out how it could work, and then we worked through with individual staff what their choices were and what they wanted to do. In the vast majority of cases, we were able to accommodate their wishes.”

Meetings audit

When it came to freeing up people’s time to accommodate for reduced hours, meetings were, unsurprisingly, put under the microscope.

“We did a meeting audit and massively reduced the number of meetings across the company. And we introduced meeting guidelines to ensure that we were being efficient with who was being invited to meetings,” wrote Rutland.

Other techniques for improving productivity include:

Empower people

The switch also necessitated a need to empower people to make decisions and better manage their time.

“I think the biggest learning for us was the conversation we had around productivity and people thinking about what they’re doing with their time. People have to think ahead and take more ownership because we still need to push forward and make decisions quickly. We don't want to delay execution so people have to get creative sometimes,” said Wittek.

Closely tied with this is providing clear expectations but allowing people to choose how they work best, including when and where.

“We're very clear about what work is expected out of them. But then we sort of get out of the way and let them do their work and we don't keep them stuck in meetings. If I had to describe our system today, I don't even know if I would call it a 4-day workweek. I probably would because technically it is, but I think the thing that people want more is just the flexibility of their time and how they do their work,” said Garber.

Something our research highlighted is that people sometimes use the extra day as a kind of overflow day.

This might be because they need to finish work, or because they decided to take an afternoon off earlier in the week, or, as Garber notes, “Friday [their designated day off] is a quieter day and I tend to have my most creative ideas on Fridays.”

In organizations that offer flexibility around which days people take off, e.g. the option to work Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Friday, quieter days can occur naturally for those in the minority category.

Join The Conversation

Implemented a 4-day workweek or thinking about it? Join the conversation in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders sharing knowledge and expertise to help you progress in your career and build better organizations.

By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.