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The Case for a 4 Day Work Week

March 19, 2020 Anna Adams

This blog is the next in a series about emerging trends in the workplace. We’ll be examining changing attitudes, conceptions and ideas surrounding the traditional 9 to 5, as well as our relationship to the work environment as a whole. 

A Brief History Lesson

The 5-day, 40-hour work week became the standard practice across a wide range of industries in the United States in 1940. It’s hard to imagine that some Americans worked a whopping 100+ hours a week before that monumental shift! 

Though the 40-hour week has been the standard for almost a century now, it’s important to remember that its rollout was as a drastic shift in the status quo, and some argue we are poised for another major shift.  Innovations in technology have increased production, speed-to-market and enabled all of us to get more done with less, as today’s work environment is largely unrecognizable to what it was 40 or even 20 years ago. These ever-changing workplace dynamics have led a number of academics and business leaders to advocate for, or at very least experiment with, the idea of a 4-day work week. 

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments in favor of abbreviating the work week, and some potential drawbacks.

Increased Productivity

Alright, time for another history lesson. In 1955, British Scholar C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in The Economist that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. This concept is now known as the Parkinson Effect, and it suggests that if you have 40 hours to complete all of the tasks of your job each week, it will take you 40 hours to complete them. And if you only have 32 hours to complete those same tasks? It’ll take 32 hours to complete them. If you have only five minutes? Well, there’s a cutoff there somewhere but you get the point.

Fast-forward to the modern day. In August 2019, Microsoft Japan ran an experiment. What if they gave their entire workforce of 2,300 people every Friday off for five weeks without decreasing their salary?

In a statement posted to Microsoft Japan’s website, president and CEO Tkuya Hirano said, “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot. I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time.” The Parkinson Effect in action.

And the results were staggering. The company found that the shorter work week made for more efficient meetings, happier workers, and a productivity boost of roughly 40%. 

Additionally, Microsoft Japan saw a reduction in overall operating costs. The Guardian reports that “employees took 25% less time off during the trial and electricity use was down 23% in the office with the additional day off per week. Employees printed 59% fewer pages of paper during the trial.”

And, perhaps most importantly of all, 92% of employees greatly appreciated that extra day off each week.

Greater Work-Life Balance

According to a recent study by The Workforce Institute, nearly 50% of workers surveyed believe they could complete their daily work tasks in less than 5 hours if they could work uninterrupted, while 71% believe work negatively interferes with their personal lives.

In recent years there’s been a lot emphasis on the importance of work-life balance. And in a tight job market, soft benefits like increased vacation days have become a way for companies to attract talent. On a more holistic level, instituting a 4-day work week both attracts new talent and increases happiness among the existing workforce.

If a 4-day work week sounds unrealistic or unattainable to you, we get it. Drastic shifts in the status quo are often met with heavy skepticism. In 1926 people could not believe it when the Ford Motor Company became one of the first companies in the United States to adopt a 5-day, 40-hour work week. That’s an enormous shift in the status quo when workers were previously expected to work 100+ hours each week. While the decision sent shockwaves through the industry, Ford saw in increase in both worker productivity and employee loyalty. They took what was perceived to be a huge risk, and it paid off not only for the Ford Motor Company, but for society at large.

But is it sustainable?

The truth is it depends. The Microsoft Japan example might work in certain workplaces, but it simply doesn’t have an analog everywhere. Not every job is the same, and not every 40-hour role can maintain the same level of output with 20% fewer work hrs. Depending on the industry, decreasing working hours could have an adverse effect on your business.

Recruiters and salespeople, for instance, benefit from being present around the clock and may work each day of the week, but taking aday off can mean missing out on placements and potential sales. Productivity increases could be lessened if your employees aren’t available at the right time.  In a tight job market with persistent talent shortages, candidates may opt to go with another recruiter or job offer if somebody is MIA.

Since there isn’t a standard model, companies are essentially on their own if they want to implement a 4-day work week program. It’s uncharted territory, which opens the door to a ton of questions.

Is the increased productivity seen by Microsoft Japan really the result of 8 fewer hours spent working each week, or simply the result of only being in the office 4 days a week? Would a company see the same benefit by implementing a 4-day work week of 10-hour workdays? Does it make sense to implement different standards of what constitutes full time work depending on roles and sectors? Could a standard 32-hour work week be traded off for a reduction in vacation time? These are all worthwhile questions to consider that do not have a clear-cut answer.

Making the move to a 4-day work week can be a difficult decision, and a lot comes down to your industry, company size and business priorities. A smaller organization, for instance, likely needs all the help they can get, and scaling down the work week could negatively impact profits and revenue. A larger outfit, though, might be in better position to prioritize employee satisfaction and work-life balance, making the 4-day work week a more realistic proposition.  Will Microsoft Japan be the catalyst for a monumental societal shift in what we consider full time work? Will it be your organization? Only time will tell!

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