If a more-flexible era of work is indeed upon us, then surely the four-day work week is leading the charge. In the past few years, more and more companies have decided to buck the traditional five-day week, betting that condensed schedules will not only maximize employee happiness, but also match — maybe even surpass — productivity levels from before.
But how does a four-day work week (ahem) work, exactly? What are its benefits? And will it actually stick around, or go the way of so many faddish workplace trends?
What Is a 4-Day Work Week?
The five-day work week is so common that everyone knows what it traditionally means: Five eight-hour days, Monday through Friday. “Four-day work week,” though, isn’t as self-explanatory.
To the contrary, the practical application of a four-day work week “is all over the place,” said Sophie Wade, a workforce innovation specialist and author of Empathy Works: The Key to Competitive Advantage in the New Era of Work.
So what is the four-day work week and what does it actually look like? It could be a compressed 40-hour work week with 10-hour days. Or it could mean a shorter, 32-hour work week with eight-hour days.
4-Day Work Week Defined
Spain, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan, United Arab Emirates and Belgium all have shifted to a four-day work week, with the concept meaning something slightly different in each place. Iceland’s, for instance, is 36 hours, a figure reached after experimenting with a 35-hour week and a 37-hour week. Belgium’s work week compresses 40 hours into four days.
In any case: “It’s the ultimate perk right now,” said Matt Greenwald, a product manager whose company, Bolt, made the switch to a four-day work week in 2022. Now, Greenwald says he has ample time on Fridays to do laundry, exercise, go to doctor’s appointments and explore San Francisco.
“I’ve always felt that engagement is measured by an individual’s merit, passion and work ethic,” Greenwald said. “It’s not about the hours you put in, it’s about your output and productivity.”
“I’ve always felt that engagement is measured by an individual’s merit, passion and work ethic. It’s not about the hours you put in, it’s about your output and productivity.”
Greenwald’s perspective — that work is about how much employees accomplish, not about how many hours they log — animates the recent support for a four-day work week. At least a handful of companies are experimenting with or have instituted the policy. Eight countries have mandated a four-day work week. California considered a law that would require a four-day work week for private-sector companies that employ 500 people or more.
And 4 Day Week Global, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit, indicates on its website that 85 percent of U.S. adults approve of a move to a four-day week.
The four-day work week is, some might say, a natural evolution in the allotment of time for work. Hundreds of years ago, 18-hour work days weren’t uncommon. In 1817, British socialist Robert Owen proposed carving the 24-hour day into three segments: Eight hours for work, eight for recreation and eight for sleep. That division set the stage for the five-day, eight-hour work day. In 1926, Ford Motor Company became one of the first companies to adopt the new work week.
Benefits of a 4-Day Work Week
If recent upheavals in the work landscape, among them the Great Resignation and pandemic-induced changes in work, have demonstrated anything, it’s that employees want flexibility. In fact, remote work options and flexible schedule options are two of the top three benefits, after salary, most important to workers, according to FlexJob’s Work Insight 2022 survey. The four-day work week ranks 10th on the list, with 29 percent of survey respondents calling it most important.
Here are the main benefits of a four-day work week:
Flexibility means lots of things, from working remotely to “Swiss cheese” days with pockets of time alternating between work and personal to hybrid schedules that divide time between working from home and the physical office.
“With the Great Resignation, there’s an exploration of what we really want out of work as well as our lives overall,” Jennifer Hand, head of talent and culture at workplace consultancy Notion Consulting, said. “Working long days all week just isn’t that appealing.”
When Hand’s children were young, her family moved overseas for her husband’s job. Before they moved, Hand negotiated a four-day work week with her employer, and it’s the reason she was able to stay in the workforce. “Having the ability to be a full-time mom even one day per work week was a gift that made me feel balanced, sane and grateful to my company,” Hand said.
Same Work, Less Time
Many people who try a four-day work week have found they’re getting just as much work done as before. That’s especially true in knowledge work, where advancements in technology, like lightning-fast internet speeds and productivity-enhancing tools, enable people to get more done in a shorter period of time.
“In knowledge-intensive firms, [the four-day work week] most likely is a synonym for flex work where people can deliver the projects they are working on by choosing their time of work because at the end of the day the work has to be done,” said Sumita Raghuram, associate professor at San Jose State University, who studies remote work.
In the United States, calls for a shorter work week come in the wake of a shortening work week around the rest of the world. At the beginning of the 21st century, the average work week in industrialized countries was 32.7 hours, according to data presented in a 2017 study, Beyond Nine to Five: Is Working to Excess Bad for Health? That’s down considerably from typical 57-hour weeks at the end of the nineteenth century, the report said.
In the United States, though, work hours per week are on the rise, with nearly 20 percent of people working 49 or more hours a week.
Could four-day work weeks make employees more productive too? There has been some early evidence that says yes.
In September of 2021, 4 Day Week Global shared the first results from its pilot program. Companies that participated in the program reported that employee productivity either stayed the same or improved because of the four-day work week. Of the participants, 34 percent said productivity had slightly improved, while 15 percent said productivity had improved significantly.
Bolt is one example of increased productivity. Eighty-four percent of the Bolt team indicated that they have been more productive, and 86 percent reported they are more efficient with their time since the advent of the shorter work week.
Some companies are seeing improvements not just in productivity, but in profits. Healthwise, a healthcare technology company, is just one example: “Our revenues went up this year more than we had budgeted,” Adam Husney, the company’s CEO, told NPR. “We've delivered on products on time or ahead of where we have done. I would say the things we are able to measure have all been positive.”
For employees, balance is a big benefit of a four-day work week, especially in a time when employers and employees are placing a premium on mental wellbeing. Notion Consulting’s employees have more time to spend on passions and interests outside of work, as well as more time to take care of mental and physical wellbeing needs.
“A four-day work week can give employees back personal time in a significant way, providing more opportunity to catch up on – and simply live – life more fully,” Hand said. “This desire has become increasingly important in our fast-paced and always-connected world.”
For employers, a four-day work week can mean a considerable advantage in a tight labor market. At Bolt, retention rates have stayed steady, which Adam McBain, its VP of operations, considers a win, given that voluntary exits from companies in the tech industry were up 50 percent in the second half of 2021, compared with a year prior, according to research from Iconiq Growth.
Bolt has also seen a surge in job applicants, with roughly 200 percent more people applying for jobs at the company in 2022 compared to the same point a year ago, McBain said.
Drawbacks of a 4-Day Work Week
A four-day work week can also present some hurdles, especially for employers. At least at first.
“The drawbacks are less about the model itself and more about initial logistical challenges in order to execute,” said McBain of Bolt, describing a “large operational lift” to switch to a four-day week.
Here are the main downsides of the four-day work week to consider:
Coordinating Schedules Is Trickier
In a four-day work week scenario, scheduling meetings can get especially challenging. But with some intentionality, it is possible.
When Bolt implemented a four-day work week, the company asked everyone to wipe their calendars clean to make sure nothing was scheduled on Fridays, and so management could be intentional about time spent in meetings. Some were trimmed to 15 minutes from 30, some were shifted to bi-weekly from weekly, and many were scrapped entirely
Kickstarter, which piloted a four-day work week before shifting to it permanently, anticipated similar issues. To prepare for the pilot program, teams clarified their most important work, deprioritized unimportant work, set expectations of availability and carved out blocks of time for deep-focus work.
Complex Situations May Arise
Another challenge might be instituting a four-day week at a large company with a mixed workforce, ranging from salaried knowledge workers to hourly technicians. Four-day work weeks may be harder to implement across varying workplace environments too, like a hospital or factory that runs ‘round the clock, seven days a week.
The complexity of scheduling in those situations might feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s not insurmountable, said Laura Giurge, assistant professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The four-day work week does not mean that organizations cease operations for three days; it means offering employees flexibility to work four days in the seven-day week and then figuring out what schedule meets the organization’s needs, she said.
“Any change comes with upfront costs,” Giurge added. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it and see how it works.”
Compensation Might Feel Awkward
Here’s a hurdle for some companies: Getting over the notion that employees will work 32 hours yet get paid for 40. The key here is accepting that employees are paid for the work they do, not for the hours they log. Switching to this new mindset would mean focusing on essential work and moving away from time-oriented tasks. “You get rid of all the noise and small things that don’t really push the business forward,” Giurge said.
Is the 4-Day Work Week the Future?
Nearly 80 percent of North American CEOs polled by consultancy Protiviti predict that the five-day, 40-hour work week will be more prevalent in 10 years. Reaction to the pandemic and lack of a consistent work week might have spurred that response, the survey said.
Fran Maxwell, managing director and leader of workforce and organizational transformation at Protiviti, disagrees with the executives’ prediction. The changing demographics of workforce leadership — Generation X taking over from Baby Boomers, with Millennials in the pipeline — is one reason.
“The traditional business leaders who believe in a 5x40 week will be out of the workforce,” Maxwell said.
Another reason is what Maxwell called an unprecedented shift toward employees’ influence on organizations. “Now more than ever, high-performing organizations are focused on the physical and mental well-being of their people,” he said. “A four-day work week provides more flexibility and greater balance, and one could argue that it provides more opportunities for individuals to focus on their well-being.”
In part, the 5x40 work week “is just how it’s always been done, kind of like Daylight Savings Time,” Maxwell added. “The pandemic taught us that we can and should challenge traditional business practices. … We also learned that in the long run, great flexibility and a focus on well-being can increase employee engagement and productivity.”
There’s that word again: Flexibility. It underpins the four-day work week and other shifts that give employees more control over their time. “The future of work is about having flexibility in your work,” Wade said. “If we’re focused on results, it isn’t necessarily about how many days or how many hours you’re working, it’s getting the work done.”
Companies Offering a 4-Day Work Week
Location: San Francisco, California
Buffer, which makes tools for social media managers, offers four-day work weeks, with all employees expected to take Fridays off. The company also provides benefits like remote work, generous parental leave, sabbaticals and a working stipend.
Location: Fully Remote
Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform for creative projects, also offers a shortened work week. The schedule for most of its employees is Monday through Thursday, with Fridays off, but some teams work Fridays and take Mondays off to maintain full business-week coverage, according to Kate Bernyk, senior director of communications.
Location: Fully Remote
DNSFilter is a cybersecurity company that piloted a four-day work week in 2021 that it later made into a permanent policy. At DNSFilter, employees work a 32-hour work week one week, then a 40-hour week with the two groups alternating, which ensures five-day coverage every week.
Location: Newark, New Jersey
Panasonic, the company behind popular appliances and electronics, announced in 2022 it would offer employees a four-day work week. Additional employee benefits include remote work and tuition reimbursement.
Location: San Francisco, California
Emtrain is an e-learning platform that offers training for workplace harassment and DEI. It also offers a four-day work week to its employees. Plus, Emtrain has a flexible remote work and PTO policy, pet insurance and tuition reimbursement.