Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1928 that within a century, the workweek would drop down to 15 hours, and while that hasn’t come true for most of us, an expanding body of research points to the benefits of a reduction in the workweek from five days to four. Sandra Moran of WorkForce Software explores the compliance benefits and implications across industries of a shift to four-day workweeks.
Employees aren’t shy about telling employers what they want or pushing to have more of their needs met, including more flexibility and more say in their work. One idea growing in popularity is the four-day workweek.
Breaking the traditional 9-5, 40-hour workweek seems inevitable, and employers should be open-minded and consider letting actual productivity, retention and engagement be their guide to a final decision. In a change as potentially ground-breaking for workers, it’s far better to be proactive and reap the rewards of early adoption than to be forced to comply when it no longer differentiates them or when regulation forces their hand.
Belgium was the first country to legislate a four-day workweek, signing a law in November 2022, and other countries have taken notice. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have proposed a pilot program to study the effects of a four-day workweek.
A pilot program in the UK was so successful that 92% of companies vowed to continue the practice. The program was a win-win — not only did employees feel they benefited from getting time back, but the companies that participated actually saw revenue tick up 1.4% and turnover drop by a substantial 57% over the trial period.
One key takeaway from the pilot program is applicable to any employer who’s thinking about how to make a four-day week work: There’s no right way to implement the change. The program took on many structures, from the traditional Friday-off approach to staggered, decentralized and annualized models.
While the four-day workweek offers benefits to both employees and employers, it requires adopting the right mindset and conducting careful planning to overcome implementation and compliance challenges.
Redefining units of work
For a four-day workweek to be effective, employers need to break traditional notions of how work is structured. Rather than view jobs as inflexible sets of tasks, managers should focus on empowering employees with the right tools to get their work done in new ways.
This change in work patterns also means seeing that a reimagined schedule isn’t just for people in corporate roles. Roles requiring on-site presence can also benefit if leaders are willing to get innovative to overcome constraints. Nearly any job could adapt to a more flexible schedule for the individuals performing the work.
For example, an assembly line may require 300 people working five-day shifts. With the right planning, cross-training and division of labor, the same output could be achieved by creatively overlapping four-day employee schedules.
Those 300 employees aren’t simply interchangeable parts — some have specialized skills that others do not, meaning it’s more about assembling the right skills and expertise for any given shift than supplying a fixed number of resources. This way, coverage can be maintained while allowing employees more control over their schedules. Artificial constraints of “this is how we’ve always done things” must evolve.
The transition to a four-day workweek raises unique compliance and scheduling challenges across industries. However, the pandemic demonstrated that even roles requiring on-site presence can be adapted with the right technology and willingness on the part of employers.
In manufacturing, as we touched on, condensed shifts will require careful coordination and potentially new staffing models to maintain output. But challenges extend to other sectors, too. Public agencies will need to find ways to maintain critical services for constituents. The UAE government, for example, adopted a four-day week in July 2023, after a program with the emirate of Sharjah resulted in a 90% increase in job performance, employee happiness and mental health.
Highly regulated industries like healthcare and financial services may have to be more creative to find ways to balance these flexibility demands based on the legislation they already have to comply with.
Each sector will benefit from questioning long-held assumptions. Retailers can consider flexible shift patterns based on foot traffic data. Media companies can leverage analytics to guide content production with fewer in-office days. The key is not treating past norms as constraints but seeking creative solutions that manage the workforce and enable the business to meet their objectives.
Very real benefits
Despite the many obstacles, it’s a worthwhile endeavor to try the four-day workweek due to its benefits. Studies show 71% of employees report less burnout and 39% report less stress, while organizations see 65% fewer sick and personal days.
With collaboration between managers and staff, a customized four-day approach can be developed for nearly any industry. It may not be easy, but it’s certainly possible to pull off a four-day workweek, even in jobs that must be performed in a particular place.
Technology will play a pivotal role in allowing organizations to implement four-day workweeks without compliance or productivity pitfalls. Solutions that include digitization, automation, machine learning/artificial intelligence, analytics and communication tools all provide greater flexibility and how an organization configures and fills shifts including the regulations it must adhere to.