What is wrong with the 4-day work week? 

  • August 19, 2022
  • Author: Pieter Manden
Reading Time: 3 min
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Only a small minority of companies have currently adopted the 4-day work week. Or should we say that the 4-day work week is still an early adopter phenomenon? Looking at the names of some companies that adopted it, you’re likely to answer this question in the affirmative. For Cockroach Labs, Bit.io, Coconut Software and Starship it sounds almost logical to do something “crazy” like this. There are some established names on the list too, though. The Japanese company Panasonic offers its employees an optional 4-day work week. However, the extra day off could only be used for a limited number of activities, such as volunteering or… a side job!

 

The Japanese branch of Microsoft performed a 4-day work week trial in 2019. The results were staggering. More than 90% of the 2,300 employees said they liked the shorter work week. Of course they did. Who wouldn’t like to work less for the same amount of money? More notable was the almost 40% productivity increase during the trial period. Most surprising, however, was the fact that the trial did not lead to the actual implementation of a 4-day work week. So it naturally raises the question: what is wrong with the 4-day work week? 

 

It probably has something to do with uncertainty around the long-term effects on productivity. Employees go the extra mile during the trial period, but what happens once the 4-day work week becomes the norm? It’s simple maths that 40 hours of work is more than 32 hours, so it’s almost logical to assume that the long-term impact on productivity is unlikely to make up for the loss in working hours. 

 

Several governments are pushing the 4-day work week because companies are reluctant to adopt it. Whether this really leads to an improved work-life balance is questionable. How would Panasonic’s side jobs have such an effect? Other companies will switch to a 4-day work week, but expect its employees to work 10 instead of 8 hours per day. This might officially qualify, but in a lot of ways this is exactly the opposite of what the initiative is all about. 

 

Companies that have currently adopted the 4-day work week have done so because of a fundamental belief that it’s the right thing to do. Maybe they believe it will not negatively impact productivity in the long term and that it might even have a positive structural impact. Maybe it’s because they want their employees to have a better work-life balance. Most likely it’s because these companies consider the 4-day work week a great employee benefit. If it comes at a cost in terms of a productivity reduction, that’s okay. Almost all employee benefits have a cost. These companies expect the positive effects to outweigh this (potential) cost. These positive effects are: higher engagement, improved retainment, better well-being, fewer absenteeism, increased productivity, and increased employer attractiveness for new hires. 

 

In the war for talent, this last point is especially likely to push more companies towards adopting the 4-day work week. At the same time, we don’t expect it will be broadly adopted by larger companies any time soon. Either the governments will have to enforce it, or preferably, its positive effects will need to be objectively proven. As we speak, the largest 4-day work week trial is underway in the United Kingdom. Some 3,300 employees from 70 companies are taking part in this project, which is supported by researchers from Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College. This probably makes for the biggest opportunity to provide this evidence. The results are expected to come in at the end of 2022. We can’t wait to see how it pans out. 

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