How to Do a Four-Day Workweek That Actually Works


The Predicament

Almost a century ago, Henry Ford officially cut his auto company’s workweek to five days from six, a then-unusual move that Ford calculated would benefit his employees without denting output. It caught on with employers during the Great Depression as a way to hire more unemployed people and was enshrined into law with the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

Could a four-day workweek be next? A recent KPMG survey of 100 big-company chief executive officers found that almost 1 in 3 were exploring such a shift. Pre-pandemic experiments with condensed workweeks in IcelandJapan, Sweden, and other places have lent support to the notion that both employees and employers could benefit. Governments including Belgium and the Dominican Republic have sponsored four-day trials, and even billionaire Steve Cohen has said he invested in a golf enterprise in part because he thinks a “four-day workweek is coming.”

Many bosses still consider a four-day workweek without a reduction in pay as a productivity killer that will cost them clients and revenue. Their resistance is partly cultural—the US being the world capital of always-on hustle culture—and partly logistical, given the challenges of implementing a four-day schedule at a time when workforces are often spread across several time zones and split between home and the office. What might work for one organization, detractors claim, won’t work for another.

“It’s madness,” longtime media executive Barry Diller said in a recent TV interview, referring to the wide range of flexible-work policies organizations are currently deploying. “You can’t have 17,000 different programs.” With opinions hardening on both sides, can employers find common ground?

The Case For

Boosters of the four-day week point to the success of experiments involving dozens of companies in the UK, US, and other countries. In a 2022 experiment, 54 of the 61 participating organizations were still doing a four-day workweek one year later, and half of them have made it permanent. Most reported improved staff well-being, half said it reduced quitting, and one-third said it helped recruiting efforts.

“We’re getting more of a realistic picture,” says Dale Whelehan, CEO of 4 Day Week Global, a research group in New Zealand that organized the trials, mostly with organizations that have fewer than 100 employees and with help from researchers in the US and UK. “We also know there are a lot of experiments happening inside large organizations. They just haven’t announced it yet.” Dove soap maker Unilever Plc, for instance, has expanded a trial from New Zealand to its Australian operations.

The challenge of maintaining output across four days rather than five can also spark innovation. A team at Australian health insurance provider Medibank Private Ltd., which is in the middle of a 250-person trial, created a tool that automated some development processes that previously required endless back-and-forth Slack chats.

For a few companies, a four-day week is just how business gets done. GHT, an engineering company in Arlington, Virginia, has been working four 10-hour days for full pay since the late 1960s. (Its founder wanted to get to his weekend beach home early.) Although some potential clients shy away, it didn’t stop Inc. from handing GHT a big project for its new headquarters in the region.

“We have to work really hard at not making this the client’s problem,” GHT President Patrick Kunze says. If a client wants to meet on a Friday, it will happen. Still, Kunze would never think about going back. “For years we were out ahead of this,” he says. “Now a lot of people figured out what we were doing works.”

The Case Against

The arguments against a four-day workweek range from the obvious—what if a client needs something on Friday?—to the more nuanced. Some critics have said the existing trials in the UK and elsewhere don’t prove much, as all the organizations volunteered to try it and invested a lot in training and planning. In other words, they were already biased toward doing four days.

Kevin Rockmann, a professor of management at the Costello College of Business at George Mason University, says deploying a four-day week broadly in the white-collar world won’t take hold unless there’s an overhaul of corporate culture, particularly in the US. Many American workers are glued to their email and Slack messages all day, even while on vacation, and these habits won’t go away overnight. The biggest workaholics are often senior leaders, who set the tone for the rank and file.

“Unless you train managers to make sure people are shutting off, it’s unclear how this would improve things—and might actually make things worse,” Rockmann says.

Simply working longer days on Monday through Thursday, with Zoom calls starting as early as 7 a.m., could produce even more stress, particularly on parents. The only way for this to work, Rockmann says, is to determine how employees are spending their time and eliminate unproductive elements such as those weekly status meetings that could be replaced by emails.

Even longtime proponents of the four-day week such as GHT’s Kunze say that compressing a full workweek into four days can get tricky, and employees often find themselves working a bit on that fifth day. Asked how he keeps work from bleeding into a Friday, he shrugs. “I don’t know if I have an answer for that.”

The Common Ground

There’s room for compromise. One idea is the nine-day fortnight, where work shuts down every other Friday, an approach that companies such as human resources software maker Dayforce Inc. and accounting firm Grant Thornton have taken in some regions. Because meetings are the primary source of schedule bloat, a day without any internal meetings can go a long way to freeing up workers. Salesforce-owned Slack calls them “Focus Fridays.” Even if an organization decides against a four-day workweek, conducting a periodic purge of unnecessary meetings can have lasting benefits.

In any good experiment, prep work is essential. Ford himself said his shift to five working days could not “be fully realized at once.” ThredUp Inc., the online apparel resale marketplace, has had a four-day week in place since 2021 for its 400 or so corporate staff. The company spent about three months planning for the shift, with lots of discussion and training about how to structure a shortened week. The first thing to go is meetings, which typically get cut by 20% or more. Another concern was employees punting a Thursday afternoon deadline to the following Monday, so anything that’s lingering should be completed by the end of the shortened week.

“Companies that are not successful do not put the time in to address all the elephants in the room,” says Natalie Breece, the chief people and diversity officer at ThredUp. “You need to know why you want to do this. If you just start by saying ‘I want four days’ and then back into the other things, it’s much harder.”

Coming up with ways to gauge employee productivity beyond simply time spent in the office or online is essential. Whelehan says he asks the organizations he works within the four-day trials how they plan to do this and finds that many don’t have an answer. Develop smarter measures, he says, and even if your organization doesn’t adopt the four-day workweek, “you will end up in a better place than where you started.”

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