by Douglas Broom*
Work smarter not harder has been the mantra of management consultants for decades. But what if you simply work less? There’s mounting evidence that ditching the conventional working week has benefits for employers and employees alike.
The World Economic Forum’s landmark 2020 report The Future of Jobs predicted that the rapid digitalization of the world of work would lead to two-fifths of the global workforce operating remotely. Many organizations would fully embrace flexible working, it added.
That principle was put to the test in a series of trials across the world in 2022 co-ordinated by a not-for-profit organization, 4 Day Week Global, with employers in Ireland, the United States, Australia and New Zealand taking part.
Surprising benefits of four-day working week
The global studies were followed by major city-wide and national trials.
Spain’s third largest city Valencia, a pilot programme trialled a four-day week by scheduling local holidays on four consecutive Mondays throughout April and May 2023.
The new temporary working week affected around 360,000 workers, who used the additional downtime to do sporting activities, relax and prepare meals, according to an independent commission of health and science experts tasked with evaluating the programme’s impact.
Results showed people in the programme had higher self-perceived health status, reduced levels of stress, were less tired and felt happier and more personally satisfied.
The drop in commuting also led to a reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions and improved air quality.
And, in a separate 2022 study – one of the biggest single-country trials in the UK to date involving 73 companies and 3,300 employees, the results were similar – four days’ work for five days’ pay benefitted both employers and workers, as this Statista graphic shows.
Almost half of respondents said productivity improved either slightly or significantly, and 86% stated it highly likely they would continue with a four-day work week after the study.
Put simply, working a four-day week meant people got more done in less time. Back in 2019, Microsoft Japan introduced a four-day working week and reported a 40% boost in productivity.
There were similar results from the global trials in 2022 with employees committing to cover 100% of their normal work in 80% of the time. When asked to rate improved productivity during the trial on a scale, where one was negative and 10 was very positive, employers gave it 7.7.
One employee in the Irish trial said: “I guess I’ve been a lot more careful with my calendar. It is one thing in terms of planning, focus time or identifying my priorities for the work week… not accepting every meeting that comes in.”
More than nine out of 10 employees who took part in the global trials said they wanted to continue with the four-day week, rating their experience 9.1 out of 10. Measures of employee stress, burnout, fatigue and work/family conflict all declined.
At the same time, employees reported improved physical and mental health, work-life balance and increased general life satisfaction. Although some employees were still doing some work on their day off, most felt they were more productive and doing a better job.
People reported getting more exercise and more sleep on a four-day week. For families, the results from the UK study were very positive with the time spent by male workers looking after their children increasing by 27%.
Better for the planet
With one less day at work, commuting time per week was expected to drop and that’s just what happened, falling from 3.5 hours to just under 2.6 hours – 27% lower. But a bigger surprise was an overall reduction in people commuting by car, from 56.5% to 52.5% of employees.
Researchers said this was partly due to remote working but there were other signs that people were more environmentally conscious. Time spent on household recycling, walking and cycling and buying eco-friendly products saw “a small but significant” increase.
An earlier study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that a 10% reduction in working hours cut an individual’s carbon footprint by 8.6% prompting lead researcher economist Juliet Schor, to argue that a shorter working week is key to cutting global carbon emissions.
Here to stay?
The four-day week trials won near unanimous approval from the workers who took part, with 97% saying a four-day week should become permanent in their organization. Employers, too, were very positive – 92% of those who took part in the UK are retaining the four-day week.
Globally, companies who took part reported their revenues had increased by approximately 8% over the trial and were 37.55% higher than the same period in 2021. Hiring was up, absenteeism was down and even the number of people quitting declined slightly.
Worryingly for companies not embracing the four-day week, seven out of 10 employees said they would demand a pay increase of between 10% and 50% if they were expected to work five days a week – 13% said no amount of money would persuade them to give up the four-day week.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in January 2023, Sander van ’t Noordende, CEO of global HR consulting firm Randstad, said the four-day working week was “a business imperative” in a world where talent is scarce.
Urging a change in employer attitudes, he said bosses should treat employees as customers. “Your customer, you ask what they want and you try to do the best possible job for your customer. You should treat talent in an equal way.” he said.
Randstad’s research showed that half of all employees were willing to quit their jobs if they were not happy at work. Flexible hours and hybrid working – combining time spent in the office and remotely – was a proven way to increase job satisfaction, van ’t Noordende added.
*Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
**first published in: Weforum.org