When record numbers of Americans quit their jobs in 2020, companies had to address the burnout and work-related stress that drove the Great Resignation. As talent shortages endure, employer flexibility will be the key to attracting and retaining the best talent: Even as hybrid and remote arrangements are likely to dominate the return-to-work landscape, candidates want an alternative to the traditional workweek.
Four-day workweeks are not new, but they are gaining momentum—even among skeptics who once feared that allowing employees to work fewer hours would slow productivity. Many employees who have tried it reported better work-life balance and reduced burnout, and some companies have seen increases in both sales and efficiency.
Shorter Workweek Experiments
Although COVID-19 accelerated the move to alternative and digitized work schedules, shorter workweeks had already been tested around the globe before the pandemic:
- Iceland’s national government and the Reykjavik City Council ran four-day workweeks between 2015 and 2019; since the trials, 86% of Iceland's workers have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or have the right to do so.
- Microsoft’s Japan offices experimented with a four-day workweek (and saw a 40% boost in sales). After the Japanese government recommended that companies allow employees to opt for a four-day week, Panasonic gave its employees that choice in early 2022.
- Social media scheduler Buffer initiated a four-day workweek trial for one month in April 2020. Despite a reduction in coding days, output doubled for its infrastructure and mobile teams and the company made the schedule permanent in 2021. A year and a half later, 91% of its fully remote and distributed team members reported that they were happier and more productive working four days per week.
- Unilever began a yearlong four-day workweek trial in its New Zealand unit in December 2020. All 81 of its employees were able to earn their full salaries while working one fewer day per week. The trial has been extended until the end of June 2022.
- San Francisco-based financial technology startup Bolt tested a four-day workweek for three months in August 2021; at the start of 2022, the company adopted the schedule permanently, citing the 94% of its employees who wanted it to continue and the 86% who said the schedule made them more efficient.
So far, 35 companies in the US and Canada have joined a pilot program offered by 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit advocating for employees to work 32 hours per week while retaining their current compensation and benefits. Kickstarter was the first US company to join the program, seeking both an antidote to pandemic-related burnout and a way to reduce the environmental impact of daily commuting—a passion of Jon Leland, Kickstarter’s Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Sustainability, who sits on the board of 4 Day Week Global. The company is scheduled to launch its six-month trial during the first half of 2022.
“Because we had to reinvent the way we work, we said, 'Why don't we think a bit more long term and do something great for our employees that the world hasn't seen, or maybe small pockets of the world are experimenting with?’” Mai Ton, Kickstarter’s Chief People Officer, tells Staffing.com. While some companies opted for meeting-free Fridays, Kickstarter went a step further. “We want to design it so that it's not going to drift into the fifth day where you just don't take phone calls, but you're still working.”
For Kickstarter, the ultimate goal of implementing a four-day week is enhancing employee engagement—but researchers from the 4 Day Week Global program will also measure the company’s productivity during the trial. "There are no silver linings from all the heartache and pain that [the pandemic] has caused us,” Ton says. “But I do think this is our opportunity to shift our mindsets of what work has to be.”
4-day Workweek Case Study: The Wanderlust Group
The Wanderlust Group—a tech company that connects adventurers to outdoor destinations—instituted a Tuesday through Friday workweek in 2020 after noticing pandemic-related strains on its workforce and reading reports of fatigue and decreasing engagement in employee surveys.
“Some of our employees were more vocal, and for some, the strain showed through productivity,” Jess Palmer, Wanderlust’s VP of People, tells Staffing.com. “We saw it in attention to detail, and ability to follow through on projects efficiently or completely. It was an opportunity for us to figure out, why are we simply doing what has worked in the past when our employees are clearly burned out?”
After the transition to a four-day workweek, efficiency, efficacy, revenue, and overall satisfaction started to skyrocket, according to Palmer. “Moving to a four-day workweek, we started seeing that projects and specific data markers in terms of our ability to hit our goals were happening at a much more solid pace,” she says. “We realized it wasn't really compressing five days into four. We were able to prioritize, as opposed to filling in things just for the sake of time.”
Since the shift, Wanderlust’s annual recurring revenue has grown 99% year over year, despite the fact that the company has cut about a fifth of their working hours.
To stay connected while working remotely, the Wanderlust team uses Google Workspace; Notion, a virtual workspace; and the cloud-based project management software Trello.
With the shortened week, Wanderlust employees now have fewer meetings. Instead of gathering in person or via Zoom, employees can use email or the company’s internal wiki pages to review agenda items. The team comes back on Tuesday “fully focused and refreshed,” Palmer says. “I’m trying to get the team to recognize that it's not necessarily [about] work-life balance, as if those two things are completely separate: It's work-life integration.”
Keeping Employees Engaged
A four-day workweek is not a fix-all for other impediments to employee happiness and engagement. According to Jim Harter, PhD, Chief Workplace Scientist at Gallup and an author of Wellbeing at Work: How to Build Resilient and Thriving Teams, managers should focus on creating an environment where people are recognized for their achievements, feel cared about, and are given chances to develop.
“It really comes down to whether people feel that they're getting productive work done and doing it in a way that is fulfilling to them,” says Harter, adding that collaborative goal-setting, transparency about job performance, and meaningful conversations at least once a week can help managers better understand employees. “For it to be meaningful, they've got to know something about the individual, their strengths, their life situation, the work they're doing, their goals.”
Calm, the software company behind the leading sleep, meditation, and relaxation app, has instituted initiatives like Zoom-free Fridays and a mental health week to address employee happiness and well-being. “The energy that we felt coming back from that week was truly incredible, and the business didn't miss a beat,” Scott Domann, Chief People Officer at Calm, told Staffing.com.
As it embarks on its four-day workweek pilot, Kickstarter is resolved to keep its community-focused culture intact. “Cohesion is still important to us,” Ton says. “It will be the job of my people team, as well as leaders and managers at Kickstarter, to make sure we still have occasions to see each other and to connect—not just about projects and work, but about other things.” Kickstarter uses the community platform Circle and the video-conferencing app Bramble for virtual social events, and has plans for an in-person retreat later in 2022.
“We felt that was also important to give us in-real-life time together so we could finally see each other off the screens and off the boxes,” says Ton. “And I think that will continue to be part of how we work together, so we can create occasions together.”
Looking to the Future
As more countries institute shorter workweek standards, the US is mulling its own transition. In summer 2021, the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act was introduced in the House of Representatives. While its chances of passing are unknown, the legislation aims to reduce the federal definition of the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours per week, with overtime pay starting at the 33rd hour rather than the 41st.
While the tech sector has been quicker to embrace the unconventional structure of a shorter workweek, questions about its viability and logistics remain. As for Wall Street and traditional corporate America, nobody is sure whether productivity will slide as a result of employees working less.
Unknowns about how to implement the schedule also persist: Will everyone work the same four days, and who decides what they are? Which jobs can be done in four days versus five or six? Does the schedule apply to every employee or only certain roles? How does a four-day workweek affect PTO and vacation time? How does it work in a global organization and across time zones?
Wanderlust’s Palmer acknowledges that the road ahead may be bumpy. “The biggest challenge with the four-day workweek is our ability to balance all of the things that we need to accomplish,” she says. “It’s going to remain an equation that continues to shift, especially as we start bringing in new people from different backgrounds, experiences, and cultures—for them to understand that it's not about working less, it's about working smarter and having more intentionality in everything that you're doing.”