The four-day week trials are multiplying, and the results are encouraging. Has the time for it finally arrived?
In 1930, the renowned British economist John Maynard Keynes published a now-famous essay titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, where he predicted that thanks to advances in automation and productivity, his descendants would only have to work 15 hours per week in 2030.
We are only a few years from that date, and much would have to change for Keynes to get this prediction right.
After the progress made after the second world war in social and labour rights, not much has changed since then. In most developed countries, the contracted working hours have remained stubbornly around 40 hours per week for the last few decades, and full-time white-collar employees usually work five days a week, the oft-cited 9 to 5 Monday to Friday.
In the last couple of years, voices to reduce the working week to four days have been rising, and several trials have been carried out in some countries, like Spain, Finland, and, most recently, the UK.
The one just finished in the UK has been the most extensive study on the issue so far, and the results seem encouraging.
Has the moment for the four-day weeks finally arrived? Will we get closer to working the 15 weekly hours Keynes dreamed for his great-grandchildren?
Some numbers from the UK trial
The data coming from the UK trial paint a rosy picture:
– 92% of the participating organisations are continuing with the four-day week.
– Company revenue rose by 1.4% on average over the trial period.
– The number of staff leaving fell by 57%.
– 90% of employees said they wanted to continue on a four-day week.
– 15% said that no amount of money would make them accept a five-day schedule
– 39% were less stressed
– 71% of employees had reduced levels of burnout
– 43% felt an improvement in mental health
As The Economist tells us, “sceptics might observe that the companies involved are self-selecting. (…) Most of the participants that remain are smaller companies, many of them agencies specialising in management and technology. They also include charities.”
Still, the trial involved around 60 companies and 3,000 employees, so we shouldn’t lightly dismiss its conclusions. Further research should follow up, of course, but for the time being, the four-day week seems to be a net positive for both companies and employees.
Personally, it doesn’t surprise me, but why should it? I’ve been working four days a week for over a year and don’t think I’d ever go back to a five-day week.
My personal experience with the four-day week
In the summer of 2021, I decided to return to Spain from my assignment in Singapore. When talking about my new job and conditions, I asked my manager at the time if we could reduce my working hours only to work four days a week.
She is an intelligent, empathetic and compassionate leader, and she knew I could do my job in four days and that that would keep me happy and engaged, so she said yes.
This was not part of any corporate well-being program or four-day week trial. It was a personal request from my side.
It was my personal choice because I wanted to dedicate more time to writing and coaching, and I was at a moment where I could afford the pay cut.
I was lucky.
Adjusting to a new rhythm
It took me some time to adjust.
I had just arrived to settle in my small Basque hometown after 20 years of living in other places, so I had to find a house, and I wanted to spend more time with family and friends.
On Fridays, my new day off, I was doing everything except writing and coaching, which was what I had planned to do. Still, having a day to do some errands before your weekend begins is nice.
After a few months like this, I finally found my rhythm for my Fridays off.
I now wake up at the same time as my working days, and I sit down at my desk to write, think about new content, do some research, or have a coaching session.
Friday is now my day.
I spend most of it alone, as my girlfriend and friends are all working, but that’s perfect for me as I can dedicate it to my things without any distractions.
Then I have my weekends for my social commitments and to rest. This extra day allows me to dedicate more time to my passions and hobbies. It frees up precious time that I otherwise wouldn’t have.
Efficiency and productivity
Has my work at Sodexo been resented because of it? No, not at all.
We must have it clear that a company doesn’t pay us a salary to attend meetings or work certain hours. They pay us to add value, to bring more value to the company than what we cost it.
This is a self-evident truth, but many people forget about it or never thought about it to start with.
When you have this mindset clear, you can focus better on what needs to be done. You can prioritise and let go of all the superfluous things that aren’t required. And there are always plenty of them.
If you streamline your work, are strict with the meetings you attend, and focus on what is essential, you can gain productivity and efficiency and do more work in less time.
One of the keys is having fewer meetings and only focusing on the really necessary ones. Many of the companies in the UK trial reported having fewer meetings as one of the main positive outcomes of the trial.
I can report the same for my own personal experiment with the four-day week. When you have less time to do things, you are more focused on what really matters.
When everybody works four-day weeks
My personal experience is a particular example of an employee working part-time in a company where full-time employment is the norm, at least for white-collar employees. The trial in the UK and other countries is different, as it promotes a four-day week for ALL employees in a company.
The trial has shown that employees prefer the four-day week but that the practice also benefitted the companies implementing it. A significant majority were planning to continue with it.
It seems to increase morale, engagement, and productivity and reduce absenteeism and turnover, so the benefits for companies are clear.
Some companies tested staggered days off for their workforces; others let employees choose between Mondays and Fridays off, effectively lengthening their weekends. It all depends on the company and its activities and services, but there are different ways to allow an extra day off to employees without disrupting the service.
Are we at the gates of a shorter week and a longer weekend, like our forefathers were when they achieved the five-day and 40-hour week? It is still too early to say.
We have had only a few trials with a few thousand employees involved. There is no big wave of demonstrations asking for it, so it may not be imminent, but I think there is a shift in the air.
Towards more flexibility
The big labour revolution of our times is already happening, and it is around flexibility in the way we work.
The main focus of this push for flexibility has been centred around the physical space and whether we work from the office, from home or from anywhere else.
Remote and hybrid working are here to stay, but we will increasingly look at flexible work time arrangements.
I am not sure that the four-day week will be institutionalised and available for everybody soon. We are still far from that, but people increasingly will be demanding, and getting, more flexible working arrangements, and the Monday to Friday 9 to 5 week will soon be a thing of the past. It will be replaced by an array of different working schedules, all complementary but none the same.
We are still far from Keynes’s dream of 15-hour working weeks; we may never get there. However, we are a bit closer to getting a shorter week, and that’s a step in the right direction.
These are baby steps, but with baby steps, you can get far, very far.