Is the Four-Day Workweek the Next Frontier?
Questrom’s Constance Hadley weighs the pros and cons of working fewer days with the same productivity levels
When Henry Ford gave his workers a five-day week in 1926, having Saturdays off was seen as a revolutionary shift to the typical workweek. The United States officially codified the five-day week for all workers in 1932. Now the United Kingdom has launched the largest test of its kind to see if five days is too long and four days makes more sense.
For the next six months, 70 UK companies spanning industries will put 3,300-plus workers on a Monday through Thursday schedule, maintaining current pay levels in exchange for current productivity levels. Activists, a think tank, and universities are overseeing the experiment, and participants include food and beverage companies, a robotics software developer, financial and consulting firms, building and construction recruitment companies, and digital marketing places.
In the United States, many employees reported burnout from working longer hours from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, some companies and nonprofits have moved to a four-day workweek. The UK test is one of several in Europe, where the Spanish and Scottish governments will pilot their own four-day workweeks later this year.
Almost 100 years after Ford’s experiment, should the four-day workweek become the next evolution of working time? We asked Constance Hadley, a Questrom School of Business lecturer in management and organizations. Hadley researches and writes about workplace burnout and loneliness, the pros–and cons–of teamwork, excessive meetings, and the growing interest in “third spaces”: working neither from office nor home, but from cafés, friends’ homes, and offsite coworking places.
with Constance Hadley
BU Today: Do you think the four-day workweek is a good idea, either wherever possible or in tandem with some people continuing the traditional, five-day pattern?
Hadley: I think the idea is interesting—but the parameters need to be made clear. Some key issues to define and consider are (a) how much time it takes to achieve productivity, and whether there are any time savings by compressing the workweek, and (b) how much work is dependent upon collaborative work that requires coordinating schedules across individuals on one less day a week.
I worry a lot about creating even longer, more hectic days, with spillover effects on the three days off, like you spend the first half of that fifth day just recuperating and cleaning up your inbox. There will also be knock-on effects on the rest of the team if everyone is just shifting their meeting times to one less day a week, or worse, if people are taking different days off from each other. It could mean longer stretches of meetings on those four days, which are also a cause of burnout and dissatisfaction.
BU Today: What are other pros and cons?
Hadley: It may hurt the organization’s accomplishment of its goals. For example, Poll Everywhere [an online service for classroom and audience response that’s going to four days this summer] sent an email to customers notifying them of their four-day workweek experiment this summer in case there were impacts on customer service.
On the plus side, people might really welcome having only four days of intense work obligations a week, plus three days free to use as they choose. Going from the standard two days off to three days—statistically, that’s a 50 percent increase! They might travel more, save more on commuting and parking, and get more time with friends and family. So I get the appeal. I just hope it is executed in a way where the benefits can be fully realized and people’s, teams’, and the organization’s viability do not suffer.
I get the appeal. I just hope it is executed in a way where the benefits can be fully realized.
BU Today: The UK test commits employers to continue 100 percent pay for four days in exchange for maintaining 100 percent productivity. Will many employers find that agreeable? And presumably, wouldn’t certain industries—line-work production, for example—be unable to get the same productivity out of workers over just four days?
Hard to say if many employers will find that structure agreeable. Everyone is watching these kinds of experiments and learning. Plus, it depends on how the economy and workforce evolve and whether these become new expectations from the vast majority of the workforce—as being able to work at least part-time remotely has become for most knowledge workers.
In other words, if the UK experiment seems successful from a productivity standpoint—and if employees still have a lot of power in the marketplace and decide this is something they want—you could see more patterns like this elsewhere.
Certain frontline industries, like oil drilling and nursing, already have that kind of nontraditional workweek schedule. So this is certainly a possibility in more than just knowledge work industries. I think the bigger challenge for frontline workers is less whether they can work four days a week and more about whether they can work remotely at all. We are starting to see some glimmers of how that might be possible.
BU Today: How did the pandemic spur experiments like this?
The pandemic really shook up our assumptions about how work needs to be done and also triggered a recognition that for many people, their well-being at work was not high before the pandemic. Now, people—and employers, I am glad to say—are prioritizing employee well-being more than ever.