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Can America make the 4-day week work?

Recent research finds the concept making headway around the world. Will it work here?
By: | November 19, 2019 • 3 min read
agile workspace
A three-day weekend is usually a welcome respite for American workers. But what would happen if that treat becomes the norm? We may soon find out, if recent reports and a new forthcoming book are any indication.The latest example of a truncated work week taking off is based on Microsoft Japan’s recent experiment with a four-day work week, which led to productivity gains and other positive business-related outcomes.

The test run, which took place in August and gave employees five consecutive Fridays off, boosted sales per employee by 40 percent, compared with the same month a year earlier, according to the Washington Post. The number of pages printed in the office fell by 59 percent, electricity consumption dropped 23 percent, and 94 percent of employees were satisfied with the program.

According to a post on its site, Microsoft Japan conducted a “Work Life Choice Challenge” as a work-style reform and in-house project centered on a “4 days a week & 3 days a week” trial that aims “to create an environment where each employee can choose a variety of flexible work styles according to the circumstances and circumstances of work and life. “By implementing a new in-house practice aimed at promoting what it calls the ‘Work-Life Choice,’ ” Microsoft Japan says it challenged its employees to “work in a short time, take a rest, and learn well” to further improve productivity and creativity.

Andrew Barnes

Prior to Microsoft Japan’s experiment, the 4-day phenomenon gained attention last year when Andrew Barnes’ New Zealand-based investment advisory firm, Perpetual Guardian, unveiled its flexible work model after the company successfully trialed and implemented the four-day week, resulting in a 20% uptick in employee productivity, a 27% reduction in work stress levels and a 45% increase in employee work/life balance.

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Barnes says the company started an eight-week trial in which employees worked only 30 hours a week but were paid for 37.5 hours. Based on a model of 100/80/100 (100% of pay for 80% percent of regular work time, yielding 100% productivity), the change is now permanent on an opt-in basis after Perpetual Guardian reported that job performance didn’t slip and staff stress levels and engagement both improved.

The focus of the change was on productivity rather than work/life balance, Barnes says, and to that end, researchers were brought in to monitor the trial and keep track of relevant metrics.

“We were able to independently verify what had happened from a productivity perspective,” he says.

Barnes, who is also the author of a forthcoming book about the company’s flexible-work model titled The 4 Day Week: How the Flexible Work Revolution Can Increase Productivity, Profitability and Wellbeing, and Create a Sustainable Future, says the Microsoft Japan results are welcome, if not expected.

“It’s important to say the Microsoft results are not unique,” he says. “Other companies are reporting this as well, while also delivering a more balanced home life to workers. It’s just the first big-name, big-size trial that demonstrates that this works.”

Barnes says his book acts as “a definitive case for a sustainable, profitable future in which we work less, but are more productive, engaged and satisfied,” in which he argues that the five-day working week is outdated and no longer fit for purpose in a hyper-connected era.

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“With four-day weeks,” he says, “we can have the best of all worlds: optimal productivity, work/life balance, and benefits for both employees and employers.”

He says American employers would do well to tackle the issue now because the youngest generation of workers will demand it.

“Almost 80 percent of millennials say they’d trade wages for time,” he says. “This is a train coming down the tracks and employers need to address that now.”

Barnes’ advice for those looking to incorporate a 4-day week is simple: Do a trial, don’t overthink it and then take a step back to see what’s working.

“We often have people say [about the 4-day week]: ‘Great idea, but it wouldn’t work at my company,’ ” he says. “But you don’t know unless you talk to your staff and try it. If you try it and it fails, your staff will love you for the fact that at least you tried.”

If implemented correctly, Barnes says, the 4-day week can help organizations tackle other issues, including wellness and environmental issues.

“As this debate broadens out, it will become easier for a U.S. audience to look at this concept and see that it makes sense,” Barnes says. “Once you accept that productivity can go up, what’s your argument against that?”

So are American companies really ready for a four-day workweek?

Auburn University Professor Michael Wesson, chair of the department of management in the university’s Harbert College of Business, says the answer is “the same as the one I teach my students when it comes to issues dealing with managing and leading people. It depends.”

The main thing to keep in mind, he says, is that some jobs and types of work lend themselves to a flexible or compressed schedule, but many do not, such as service-related jobs. “Flexible schedules are easier for really large companies to install than they are for small companies or family-run businesses,” he adds.

Barnes says he thinks we will continue to see companies experimenting with the 4-day week—especially when unemployment is low like it is right now and recruiting is more crucial to a company’s success. But does he see wholesale changes in the U.S. coming anytime soon?

“Probably not,” he says. “We’re much more likely to see it happen in Europe first as their societal norms for work are a bit different from ours.”

Web Editor Michael J. O’Brien has been with HRE for more than a decade and holds a degree in economics from Boston College. He can be reached at [email protected]

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