The Future of Work - Should Your Small Business Switch to a Four-Day Workweek?
June 3, 2022
With the lingering impact of the pandemic and its aftermath, there has been much talk lately about the future of work. This discussion has gone beyond remote work and unemployment benefits, reaching into some of the core assumptions we have about the structure of our professional lives. In this conversation, one question has grown in importance: is a four-day workweek a part of this future?
Sure, everyone loves an occasional three-day weekend. But should this become a core part of a typical schedule? Many companies and a few countries have experimented with a four-day workweek.
As a small business owner or startup founder, following this trend could help you attract talent and keep your employees happy and on-task. At the same time, a four-day workweek could adversely impact your ability to compete with more established competition. This article will address the pros and cons that come with a four-day week, helping you frame a discussion about whether to pursue the strategy.
What is the four-day workweek?
There was a time when the standard workweek stretched to around 70 hours. In the early factories of the 19th century, employees frequently put in 12-hour shifts on Monday through Friday, plus a slightly shorter day on Saturday. This led to schedules that called for working schedules from 68 to 74 hours each week.
This steadily diminished over time. Our current conception of the workweek as 40 hours spread over five consecutive days developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, there has been a push for another review of this idea.
The details of a four-day workweek vary from situation to situation. Many work environments, especially in the medical field, have long included long shifts for fewer days a week. So, for example, working four 10-hour shifts rather than five eight-hour ones.
However, the current push for a four-day workweek typically includes calls for fewer hours as well. Instead of putting in 40 hours during a regular workweek, many labor advocates have pushed for a cut back in total time. Some of these plans call for 32 hours — a four-day workweek, each consisting of eight hours a day. Others point to levels around 35 to 36 hours a week.
Advocates for the policy, like the academically focused nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, argue that companies can cut back on hours, while maintaining worker salaries at previous levels – all the while, still keeping production steady. They theorize a 100-80-100 model — meaning that workers get 100% of their pay for 80% of their previous hours, yet still reach 100% productivity.
Is a four-day workweek viable for business?
It may seem obvious that paying employees the same amount for fewer hours will cut into profits. However, those arguing for the new policy disagree. They feel that added productivity and the long-term quality of life improvements for employees ultimately make up for the nominal loss of work time.
Are these advocates right?
There have been large-scale experiments with four-day workweeks. Many of these have hinted that the schedule comes with significant benefits.
For instance, Iceland ran a protracted trial of the four-day workweek. From 2015 to 2019, the small island nation enrolled more than 2,500 workers in a program. This equated to about 1% of the country's total workers. According to researchers, the process led to lower stress and a reduced risk of burnout.
While Iceland is a relatively tiny nation (companies like Amazon or Walmart employ more people than work in the entire country), it is hardly alone in its four-day workweek experiment. Large companies like Panasonic, Microsoft, and Unilever have tried out these alternative schedules on at least a limited basis, often affecting a particular geography (Japan in the case of Microsoft and New Zealand for Unilever).
While these have generally shown success, there have been failed experiments in the four-day schedule. For instance, Australia-based fintech Yarno attempted to switch to the new work hours but eventually had to abandon the program.
Because clients didn't necessarily follow the same pattern, not every Yarno worker was able to take the four-day option. This led to complications and confusion about whether to loop in coworkers who nominally had a day off. Should management bother the team member on Friday (theoretically part of their weekend) or make the client wait until Monday?
For many small businesses, staffing levels aren't high enough to close down for an additional day. Larger organizations can work around this (for instance, giving some people Friday off, while others take an extra day on Monday). Startups often don't have this leeway.
Meanwhile, if the four-day workweek ever became standard, it would be easier for all companies to maintain the schedule. Customers, suppliers, etc. would all follow the same pattern, eliminating some of the pressure to revert to a five-day system. Before this happens, most small businesses will have to track the expectations of their clients and partners.
Pros and cons of the four-day workweek
Should you join the experiment? As we've seen, success or failure in a four-day workweek has a lot to do with your business and the particular circumstances of your industry. Here are a few benefits and drawbacks to consider as you look at the possibilities:
Improved recruiting and retention
According to experts watching the four-day trend, companies saw significant recruiting benefits from the move. Almost two-thirds (63%) saw boosts in recruitment and retention.
Companies saw significant recruiting benefits from [switching to a four-day workweek]. Almost two-thirds (63%) saw boosts in recruitment and retention.
Of course, as more companies adopt these schedules, they’ll deliver less benefit as a recruiting tool. That said, as the four-day week becomes more commonplace, having the option might represent a requirement to stay competitive. (Imagine trying to attract talent with a strict six-day-a-week demand — the five-day workweek could become a similar recruitment disadvantage in the future).
Lower risk of burnout
The same study that indicated a recruitment boost from the four-day week also saw some benefits for worker satisfaction. Specifically, more than three-quarters of the workers involved in the schedule (78%) reported less stress and higher levels of happiness.
Heightened productivity during working hours
As for productivity, many companies that have tried the four-day schedule have seen their teams work harder in a compressed time to get more done. As one employee put it, the brisker work schedule led to a "full-on pace," cutting down on breaks and idle non-work chatter.
With the extra weekend day on the horizon, many workers feel more comfortable pushing their limits during the tighter working schedule. They get more done in a shorter time, mitigating the impact of fewer hours.
Added short-term stress
Most employees switching to a four-day workweek have liked the change. However, there are exceptions. Surveys suggest that 40% of workers thought the breakneck pace of the new hours created more stress.
While long-term mental health seems to see a positive impact, the tighter workweek also leads to a frantic pace that doesn't suit everyone. At the very least, many employees experience a bumpy transition.
More aggressive corporate culture
Another downside comes from the changing corporate culture. With fewer breaks and less chit-chat, some workers reported feeling alienated from their coworkers. The new hours led to an all-work ethic that can strip your team of some of its accustomed camaraderie.
As we saw in the case of Yarno, some companies can't sustain a four-day week. As a small business owner, you need to respond to market pressures. Whatever happens, you need to be sure that you can meet your customers' expectations in terms of availability and output. Whether you can do that with a shorter week will depend on your particular situation.
As a small business owner, you need to respond to market pressures. Whatever [work schedule you implement], you need to be sure that you can meet your customers' expectations in terms of availability and output.
Considering the four-day week
There have been great changes to the way we work over the past couple of years. This evolution is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. As part of this, a four-day workweek has become a crucial topic of ongoing discussion.
Is a transition right for you? You'll have to weigh the specifics of your business to make that determination. However, you can use the information provided here to help you decide if you should try switching to this innovative work schedule.