The events of the last two years have transformed long-utilized work models—accelerating the rise of hybrid and remote work and reframing how many employers think of the traditional office. Now, while still far from the norm, the concept of a four-day work week is also gaining traction.
Multiple factors are fueling the trend. For one, many workers got a taste of new, work-from-home opportunities during the pandemic—a recent survey from global advisory, insurance broker and solutions firm WTW found that 58% of employees now want to work remotely. And, as many employees search for new, more meaningful work in the Great Resignation, they’re looking for continued innovation in their working arrangements. Some employers are delivering in the form of a shortened, often-hybrid work schedule.
Such companies as Panasonic and online platform Kickstarter recently moved to the four-day model, which has also been trialed in Microsoft offices. In a pilot from an organization called 4 Day Week Global, 35 North American companies and some two dozen countries and companies around the globe are testing four-day weeks this spring, Forbes reported. There’s even proposed federal legislation to reduce the standard work week from 40 hours to 32.
According to a survey from Digital.com of 1,300 U.S.-based business owners, 27% of those surveyed have switched to a four-day work week, and an additional 35% are considering the move. A recent survey from Qualtrics found that more than 90% of surveyed Americans would support shortening the work week.
While the trend can yield significant advantages for employers and employees, experts say, to make it sustainable, HR needs to first ensure the right policies and mindsets are in place.
Consider the consequences
Jackie Reinberg, senior director at WTW, says the four-day model offers a range of potential benefits, including helping employers meet the evolving needs of employees, which can support overall DE&I objectives and improve worker health and wellbeing. The move also gives employees the freedom to work when and where they feel most comfortable and productive and demonstrates trust in employees, which can lead to improved engagement and loyalty and can reduce turnover and absenteeism. A lower carbon footprint and real estate savings are among other possible advantages, she says.
And, as some pilot studies have found, she says, four-day weeks can improve productivity. Microsoft’s trial in Japan, for example, found workers were happier—and 40% more productive.
At the same time, Reinberg says, not all employees are disciplined or structured enough to manage the ambiguity of blurred lines in this type of schedule. And, if expectations are that the four working days will be longer, that could drive up employee stress.
“Also, not all jobs/organizations lend themselves to this work arrangement,” she adds. “Less seasoned or tenured colleagues may struggle as the need to inquire or ask for help may be uncomfortable, so curiosity and asking questions needs to be encouraged.”
What it takes to make it work
Above all, a successful hybrid or remote four-day work week is contingent upon employers trusting and empowering employees, Reinberg says.
“It requires a performance culture where outcomes, not hours, rule the day,” she says. Leaders and managers must also rely on effective, regular communications to be clear on the work arrangements, as well as provide regular feedback, both positive and constructive.
“There needs to be clear expectations and parameters for schedules, response times, meetings, etc., to create consistency on schedules for equity, workflow management and milestones,” she says. “Plus, employees need the work tools and technology to be successful.”
According to Samantha Lawrence, senior vice president of people strategy at Hired, a hiring marketplace for tech and sales talent, building trust and transparency among remote workforces, particularly in a four-day schedule, is critical. And it’s also why Lawrence believes employee monitoring tools in such scenarios hurt an organization’s culture.
“Employee trust is the foundation of a strong and positive company culture and overall business success,” she says. “If employees do not trust their managers or management teams—and vice versa—it can create an environment where people feel unvalued, unheard and, even in some cases, unsafe when it comes to raising their voices about workplace concerns and issues.”
Surveillance tools, which have been on the rise in the shift to remote work, she adds, put the “employee relationship at risk and will only negatively affect retention and their overall success as a business.”
Instead, employers should implement messaging and project management tools that enable asynchronous communication and collaboration. That, in turn, allows managers and team members to see progress and updates on certain tasks at any given time and to focus on the results and value employees ultimately deliver, rather than the exact steps they took to get there.
“By restricting the work week to four days—oftentimes specifically Monday to Thursday—an organization is actually limiting the amount of flexibility that they are giving their employees,” she says, adding that rather than cutting the number of hours in a week in the same way for everyone, companies should embrace flexibility and asynchronous work more broadly. They should allow employees to own their schedules and choose the hours that work best for them.
“This might look different for everyone and depend on things such as when they need to pick up their kids from school or any other weekly commitments they might have,” she says. “When they communicate and coordinate this with their respective teams, this type of flexibility can be a true game-changer for the entire workforce and significantly increase employee satisfaction.”