Real Results: The Pros & Cons of a 4-Day Workweek

As employers and employees alike search for better ways to work, many are rethinking the concept of the workweek entirely. For example, a recent bill in California proposed switching the state over to a 32-hour workweek. This particular bill eventually stalled, but it’s just one example in a long list of countries and companies testing out or implementing a four-day workweek, including Iceland, Sweden, Scotland, Microsoft Japan, Kickstarter, and many more.

The bottom line? A four-day workweek comes with a lot of positives—higher company and worker productivity, lower turnover, better work-life balance, and more—and few negatives. But there’s more to making the switch from five working days to four than simply adjusting your company calendar.

To help you decide if a four-day workweek could work for your organization, we’ll discuss different examples of what a four-day workweek can look like for you and your employees, the benefits of a four-day workweek, and the possible downsides to prepare for.

What Does a 4-Day Workweek Look like?

There are two main ways to look at the four-day workweek: as a compressed workweek or a shortened workweek.

Compressed Workweek

This approach takes the eight-hour days normally worked over the course of a five-day workweek and compresses them into four 10-hour workdays. Employees do the same work, but now they do it during slightly longer workdays.

Here are some examples:

Shortened Workweek

Like California’s proposed 32-hour workweek, this approach cuts back the work hours for the week while keeping pay the same (in most cases). This is referred to as the 100:80:100 model: employees receive 100 percent of their pay and work 80 percent of their time. The most important part of this exchange, however, is that employees need to give 100 percent productivity.

In terms of what a shortened workweek looks like on the ground, there’s no real rule as to how much shorter the week has to be. As you’ll see from the examples below, there are about as many ways to shorten a workweek as there are companies.

Type of Workweek

Example

35 hours

DiamondBack, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturing company, had to add in a second shift due to higher demands but didn’t want to reduce the quality of life for the later shift. They’ve since switched to a four-day workweek, with mostly 6.25-hour shifts and one 10-hour day. Employees are paid the same.

32 hours

Buffer, a small U.S.-based tech company, offers a 32-hour workweek with full-time pay. They’ve made the arrangement flexible so that not everyone has to fit their schedule into four days, if necessary:

  • 73 percent of Buffer employees work four days a week
  • 27 percent work more than four days, usually a half day on Friday

30 hours

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based estate planning company, reduced work hours in 2018 without reducing pay, giving all 240 employees a paid day off each week.

Note: Full-time pay prior to the switch was based on a 37.5-hour workweek.

3, 4, or 5 days

Mizuho, one of Japan’s largest lenders, announced they’d give 45,000 of their 60,000 employees the option to work three, four, or five days a week.

  • Employees working three days would get 60% of their current salary.
  • Employees working four days would get 80% of their current salary.

And here’s another example that doesn’t exactly fit in with the rest, and here’s why—Maaemo, a three-Michelin-star Norwegian restaurant, switched to a 45-hour, three-day workweek, with five days off once a month.

That might not sound like a shorter workweek, but the standard for high-end restaurants is a staggering 85 hours a week. It wasn’t unusual for Maaemo’s staff to work 20-hour days, so this was a huge change.

But did the switch to a shortened workweek really make a difference for these companies? Don't worry, we'll share some of their results in a moment. First, here's a look at what made switching to four-day workweeks (or shorter) so attractive to all these different companies in the first place.

What Are the Advantages of a 4-Day Workweek?

More Flexibility and Better Work-Life Balance Make for Happier Employees

The added flexibility and work-life balance of a four-day workweek are by far the most important benefits for employees. Many have struggled with their mental health and a complete blurring of home and work life during the pandemic. In a 2021 survey, 79 percent of remote employees said they felt burned out on a monthly basis, and more than half said they felt burned out weekly.

The top three reasons they cited for burnout were:

  1. An “always-on” remote work culture
  2. Juggling extra responsibilities at home or in their personal life
  3. Juggling extra responsibilities outside their job description

Even as things have normalized, the Great Resignation proves people are still dissatisfied with their work arrangements, with one quarter of U.S. workers saying they’re considering leaving their current employers because they need a mental health break.

The Great Resignation has opened up more possibilities for finding a job that allows people to put what they value first, whether that’s family or personal pursuits. When looking to switch industries, American workers prioritize:

  1. Better pay 62%
  2. Better work-life balance 43%
  3. Flexibility 42%

Having one additional day off a week, or shorter workdays, gives employees time to handle personal obligations, like caring for children or tending to their own health, and do things they care about, like enjoying their hobbies or involving themselves in their community. All of this results in happier, better rested employees, as many employers have found.

Example #1: Perpetual Guardian, NZ

Perpetual Guardian, the New Zealand-based estate planning company mentioned earlier, switched to a four-day workweek in 2018. Here is what they found when they compared data from before and after the switch.

Example #2: UK Businesses

British researchers found similar improvements in employee satisfaction for UK businesses who switched to a four-day workweek, which comprised half of the businesses they surveyed. Business leaders or owners who made the switch reported their employees were healthier and happier overall:

Example #3: Iceland

If that’s not enough to convince you, Iceland ran a test to understand the benefits of a shortened workweek, including a broad range of workplaces—schools, museums, government offices, a police station, a hospital’s internal medicine department, and even the mayor of Reykjavík’s own office.

Rather than switching to a formal four-day workweek, these trials cut working hours from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours (with pay remaining the same). The benefits participants found in working fewer hours showcase just how much better people’s lives can be with less time at work and more flexibility.

Here are the benefits cited by participants:

While these are all wonderful things to give employees, businesses still need to meet deadlines, service customers, and get work done. The good news is that shorter hours doesn’t mean that employees get less work done—at all. In fact, research shows quite the opposite to be true.

There’s more to the Great Resignation than quitting. People want growth, purpose, balance, and stability.

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Employees Are More Productive and Businesses Are More Efficient

It’s a bit shocking to realize how much time we waste at work, but most of it’s due to inefficiencies and mismanagement rather than “employee laziness.” In a survey by The Workforce Institute at Kronos, 45 percent of employees said they could do their jobs in five hours or less a day.

What happens with the other three hours? Nearly nine in 10 employees said they lose time each day on work tasks that aren’t related to their core job.

Top 5 Time Wasters

  1. Fixing problems they didn’t cause
  2. Having to do administrative work
  3. Attending meetings
  4. Responding to emails
  5. Dealing with customer issues

This goes a long way in explaining how businesses are able to increase productivity while reducing or compressing work hours—it’s just a matter of working smarter, not harder. And that’s exactly what the data bears out.

More Productive Workers, Better Quality Work, and Reduced Costs

In the research on UK businesses, business leaders and owners who’d made the switch to a four-day workweek reported significant productivity and business efficiency benefits: ​​

In the same study, researchers estimate that a shorter workweek saves UK businesses as much as 92 billion pounds sterling (about 115 billion dollars) a year in operating costs, which equals 2 percent of revenue.

How Individual Companies Become More Productive and Efficient

Other companies who have tested or switched to a four-day workweek also report gains in productivity:

All of these satisfaction, productivity, and efficiency gains for companies and their employees contribute to growing the employer brand, a real boon to recruiters vying for the best candidates.

Customers care about your employer brand—are you sending the right message?

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Businesses Can Better Recruit and Retain Top Talent with a 4-Day Workweek

People are tired of work dominating their lives, which is why the four-day workweek is so popular among workers and job seekers. In a 2022 Qualtrics survey, 92 percent of employees said they’d welcome a switch to a four-day workweek at their company.

They also recognized the value of a four-day workweek in creating a more appealing workplace, with just over 80 percent saying that a four-day workweek would make them feel more loyal to their employer and help their company recruit talent.

As the growing research challenges the efficacy of traditional 40-hour, four-day workweeks, it’s important to remember that, for employees, the appeal of the four-day workweek isn’t just about working less—less makes work more purposeful, healthy, and efficient. In the same Qualtrics survey:

Again, this isn’t just employee perception. The majority of UK businesses who switched to a four-day workweek saw a boost in their employer brand and recruiting power, with 63 percent saying that it helps their organization attract and retain the right talent.

Even better, a four-day workweek helps them attract and retain a wider diversity of employees:

When the word gets out that a company has changed to a four-day workweek, the response can be astounding, as was the case for The Wanderlust Group. Since they made the switch in 2021, applications to job openings have risen a whopping 800 percent. Additionally, their retention rate is 98 percent, proof that a four-day workweek is more than just a shiny gimmick to get people in the door. It also keeps them there.

What Are the Disadvantages of a Four-Day Workweek?

The 4-Day Workweeks Has a Bad Rap

Despite all the positive evidence that supports a four-day workweek, its biggest disadvantage is that some people have negative preconceptions about it. While managers and leaders seem to be the most skeptical, even employees worry that a four-day workweek would negatively affect certain aspects of business success.

According to Qualtrics’s survey:

Employers also fear the repercussions a four-day workweek will have on customer service. In research on UK businesses, 82 percent of employers who didn’t offer a four-day workweek said making employees available to customers trumps the need to offer flexible work.

Even though these fears don’t appear to be validated by available evidence, this bias could pose a problem for those trying to introduce a four-day workweek in their workplace. Whether you’re pitching to executives or employees, you need to come prepared with concrete evidence to convince them of the benefits of a four-day workweek.

Offering a Four-Day Workweek Doesn’t Guarantee People Will Use It

Without the right culture of trust at your company, your four-day workweek initiative could be in jeopardy from the start. If people don’t feel that everyone—leadership and coworkers—is committed to making the four-day workweek a success, then it has the potential to turn into another benefit that looks nice on the company website but doesn’t actually get used.

People’s fears about how they’re perceived at work can make them reluctant to take advantage of a shortened workweek, even when they think it’s a good idea.

Maybe that’s not actually what would happen, but it’s enough that the perception is there.

Likewise, without team-level support, a four-day workweek would increase employees’ stress rather than relieve it. In the study of UK businesses,

These issues have more to do with the existing workplace culture than actual problems with a four-day workweek. Nevertheless, existing bias against a four-day workweek—whether in expected business outcomes or expected behavior—can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure that leads to additional resistance to the new workweek. All of this can make change seem impossible if a large percentage of employees mark “strongly disagree” when asked about the new workweek.

However, while employee surveys can be helpful indicators of people’s willingness to switch to a four-day workweek, it’s important to remember that Likert-scale responses are just the first step to understanding employees’ motivations and uncovering their concerns. As with any major organizational change, you need to provide the right support, help employees feel heard, and improve your workplace culture if you want people to embrace change.

Certain Industries Might See an Increase in Costs

While pandemic fears wane, everything else seems determined to drive up operating costs—supply chain disruptions, inflation, reawakened consumer demands, rising energy prices, and more. Adding more labor costs on top of it all is likely not an attractive proposition, and there is some evidence that a four-day workweek would do so in certain instances and with mixed results.

Example #1: Gothenburg, Sweden

The best evidence comes from Sweden’s shortened workweek test, which took place at a state-owned elderly care facility in Gothenburg over the course of two years, starting in 2015. Still, the findings about costs were fairly mixed:

Qualitatively, this Swedish study echoed many of the same benefits we listed previously. Nurses who went on the shorter schedule, working six-hour shifts instead of eight, reported improvements in their work and personal life, including:

Though a Gothenburg city council member called the whole experiment “crazy and irresponsible” because of its cost to taxpayers, one of study’s researchers suggested this study was not long enough to bear out the relationship between reduced hours and health costs.

Example #2: Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Sweden

The healthcare industry is also unique in its high burnout and turnover rates. Another Swedish healthcare institution, an orthopedics department in this case, felt the financial costs of switching to a shorter schedule were worth the qualitative returns. Switching to a six-hour shift cost an estimated 123,000 dollars more a month, but it also allowed them to:

Example #3: Maaemo Restaurant, Norway

Similarly, the food service industry has higher than normal turnover and burnout rates, placing even more importance on having a solid retention strategy and providing an especially positive employee experience. Maaemo, the Norwegian restaurant with the three-day week, sacrificed profitability in favor of both, with the owner concluding: “I'm fine with us just breaking even.”

These examples may not lend themselves to easy comparisons to other industries or private businesses, but they point to possible tradeoffs that organizations need to take into account with a four-day workweek.

Consider the following questions for your specific business and industry:

The 4-Day Workweek Is More Than Just Hype

Love it or hate it, many companies have taken the plunge into the world of four-day workweeks, and they’re not looking back. Looking at the benefits, it’s easy to see why—happier, more productive employees with more time to spend simply living their lives.

But even if the cons of a four-day workweek seem to outweigh the pros for your organization, finding ways to employ the basic principles behind the practice can help increase employee satisfaction and retention. For example:

Stay tuned for our follow-up post on this topic, where we’ll dive into the practical ways to implement a more flexible work schedule, including ways to put a four-day workweek into practice.