Four-day work week: is it too good to be true?

Four day work week

Nia Plamenova, Human Resources lecturer

More and more companies are experimenting with a four-day work week, after seeing some successful examples from New Zealand, Iceland, Japan, and others. In May 2021 the Spanish Government endorsed a pilot program with a fund of millions of euros that will be destined to support companies who wish to implement the four day workweek. The World Congress of Time management research, held in Barcelona last month also ended in a resounding "yes" to shorter work weeks. Spain it seems, is moving towards the four-day work week rather quickly. Maybe even too quickly, Desigual, for instance, was one of the first companies to implement it partially and provoked a lot of controversy as there was also a reduction in salary, despite part of the workforce not being on board.

Is it a good idea to reduce the working day without reducing wages? Research and practice suggest that yes

Is it a good idea, though, to reduce the working day without reducing wages? Research and practice suggest that yes, provided we take into account key organizational factors. The benefits of a shorter workweek have been widely popularized, sometimes exaggerated in the mass media, with top mentions being an increase in productivity, reduced risk of burnout, more employee engagement and job satisfaction, better work family-balance. It allows people to disconnect from work more fully, mitigating the consequences of the never-been-so-blurred-before lines between work and home. The latter goes in line with Steven Covey's 7th habit of highly effective people "Sharpen the saw", and is considered a key factor in productivity. Furthermore, as recently pointed out in the Financial Times, working less can be of great benefit to the environment, as it reduces traffic and consumption.

A shorter work week also requires from both employees and employers to truly grasp that the most valuable asset in today's working world is not time, it's attention. Adam Grant (Wharton University), currently the most renowned organizational psychologist, stated in one of his Linkedin posts "We can be as productive and creative in 6 focused hours as in 8 unfocused hours". It is through focused work that we achieve good results, and the hours spent working is by far one of the least reliable metrics for performance.

A shorter work week requires from both employees and employers to truly grasp that the most valuable asset in today's working world is not time, it's attention.

There are, of course, those who are not in favor of the four-day work week, like the president of the Aragon Business Confederation (CEOE Aragon) who harshly critized the idea and was cited in the Guardian saying "Getting out of this crisis requires more work, not less." Others worry that any positive effects will be short lived because a) people would get used to the four-day week and stop trying to "compensate" with more productivity and b) less time and an extreme focus on productivity means less training, reflection, socialization, less transfer of tacit knowledge, all of which have been linked to innovation in the long term. There have also been suggestions that cutting out 1 day entirely is actually not as productive as reducing the daily working hours, as was done in a nursing home in Sweden, obtaining good results.

For those that are in favor, it's tempting to treat a shorter work week as simply the manifestation of Parkinson's law: "Work expands to fill the time allotted to it". It's not that simple though, and managers and HR specialists need to be aware of the impact of organizational culture, climate and shared understanding before experimenting with a shorter work week.

"Experiment" is the operative word here, as we still don't know enough about the long-term effects: although Harvard Business Review and other management publications have come up with guides and strategies on how to implements the four-day work week, some questions remain: What workers is it most suited for? Is our company culture suitable for making it work? If there are good results, how do we sustain them? In what areas/markets does it best work? How do we make sure leaders and teams are aligned and on board with the shorter week?

The clearer the expectations and objectives, the more people are able to work smart instead of hard

Processes and regulations can be changed faster than mindsets, and for this to work there needs to be alignment and a common vision between the different stakeholders. Any company that wants to implement a four-day workweek needs to first create a shared understanding of what this means, what is expected in terms of productivity and results, and to provide employees with lots of clarity.

This means creating useful performance metrics, meaningful objectives for tasks, and projects. Continuously managing by objectives and providing feedback often can increase productivity per hour (necessary if you want to work less and produce the same), and eliminate presenteeism. The clearer the expectations and objectives, the more people are able to work smart instead of hard: it's not about doing more faster, but working smarter and more strategically. This might require an effort from top management and team leaders to minimize unnecessary meetings and take care of people's focused time, as well as a commitment to continuously re-evaluate and tweak how the shorter work week is experienced in the organization.

ODS