The Argument for a 4-Day Workweek Gets Stronger After Latest Trial

This past summer saw the launch of the biggest four-day workweek trial in the world, as 3,300 people across several different types of businesses in the UK started working 80 percent of their regular hours for 100 percent of their pay. Employees had to maintain the same level of productivity they had while working five days per week, and assess the new schedule’s impact on various aspects of their mental and physical well-being.

Halfway through the six-month trial, feedback from both employees and companies was overwhelmingly positive; people felt they were more productive and less stressed, and some businesses even saw their financial performance improve.

All the while, a whole other four-day work week experiment was quietly underway on the other side of the pond(s). Run by the same organization—a nonprofit coalition called 4 Day Week Global—this trial involved 903 employees across 33 companies, with the largest proportion (40 percent) based in the US. The remainder were in Australia, Ireland, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada.

The trial’s results were reported last week, and similar to the UK pilot (and the Iceland one before it), it was a resounding success. 96.9 percent of employees want to stick with a four-day week rather going back to five days, and more than half of the participating companies have already decided to implement four-day weeks. Employees’ self-assessed work performance improved, as did their “satisfaction across multiple domains of life.”

While these results can’t quite be called surprising—most of us would quickly sign up to work fewer hours if given the option—it’s worth noting that the culture around work is pretty different in the US than it is in the UK or Australia. A stereotype about Americans is that they prioritize work over almost all else; compared to Europeans, for example, we’re seen as workaholics, putting in longer hours and taking fewer vacation days.

Studies have found that Americans are more likely to conflate career and identity, defining themselves by what they do for a living, whereas Europeans are more likely to see their jobs as a means to live comfortably and do other things they enjoy.

Is it surprising, then, that American workers appear thrilled to cut their work week short?

It’s hard to say how different the results may have been in a pre-Covid world; the pandemic caused people to reevaluate how they were spending their time and what was important to them in life. If we’d never gotten a chance to zoom out from the nine-to-five grind, try working from home, and getting more flexibility with our time and schedules, a four-day work week might have felt less plausible. But in the post-pandemic world, all kinds of hybrid and remote work options are suddenly on the table.

By sector, most of the companies in the US trial were grouped as administrative, IT, and telecoms, followed by professional services and non-profits. Notably, 52 percent of the companies were very small, with ten or fewer employees. Might people at small companies feel less pressure to conform to an hours-intensive company culture or climb the corporate ladder?

It’s certainly possible. But in general, it seems people like having the option to be more efficient with their work hours—if you waste less time on the internet or wandering around the office chatting with coworkers, it’s surprising how much you can get done in a day—and spend their extra free time however they want.

4 Day Week Global says they’re launching new programs in different parts of the world every quarter. Companies that are interested in taking part in one can inquire about upcoming pilots in their country. With the rave reviews these trials keep getting, it seems likely that the four-day week will catch on more widely with time.

There are a few caveats we should keep in mind, though. As one of the more populous countries in the world and one with a high level of economic inequality, the US isn’t a straightforward place to implement any sort of across-the-board policy in terms of work (well, other than those related to protecting employees’ rights and preventing abuse or exploitation).

About three-fourths of the people who participated in the US trial had a bachelor’s degree. But looking at the broader American population, only 37.9 percent of adults age 25 or over have a bachelor’s (that’s up from 30.4 percent in 2011). The nature of most professional jobs is more conducive to a shortened week than jobs that require less education, and implementing four-day policies that applied to some but not others could cause the class divide to widen further.

4 Day Week Global believes that a shorter work week has the potential to not only improve business productivity and worker health outcomes, but can strengthen families and communities and contribute to greater gender equality. These are all worthwhile aims; if working fewer hours could help achieve them, it seems worth a try.

Image Credit: Israel Andrade on Unsplash 

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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