Note: This is an opinion piece and does not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Bonusly. 👍
The popularity of the 4-day workweek has boomed in the last few years as more and more companies are recognizing that they can work smarter and gain a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining employees.
When I moved my past company, Uncharted, to a 4-day workweek in the middle of 2020, we didn’t know what to expect. There were a handful of case studies looking at companies that worked four, 8-hour days for 100% compensation, however, there wasn't enough information available about the pros and cons at the time.
Today, more and more companies are piloting a 4-day workweek, buoyed by empirical data, proven benefits, and a workforce that is interested in reimagining every part of the workplace.
Is it worth exploring at your organization? Continue reading to find out.
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The evolution of the workweek
If you’re like me, you might have thought that the 5-day workweek has been the way we’ve worked for centuries, but the 5-day workweek (and 2-day weekend) has only been around for about 100 years. Before Henry Ford popularized a 5-day workweek in the United States, many people were working six days. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a 40-hour workweek and a 2-day weekend (and the subsequent Sunday Scaries 😱).
Defined as working four, 8-hour days for 100% compensation (instead of 80% compensation), the 4-day workweek challenges many of the prevailing beliefs around work:
- That success is a function of working long and working hard
- That not everything is urgent and important
- That we can’t have 10 different, simultaneous priorities
The idea of the 4-day workweek has been around for decades (Fun fact: Richard Nixon predicted a 4-day workweek in the not-too-distant future in 1956), but it’s having a moment since the pandemic. With more examples and case studies emerging of successful 4-day workweek pilots at companies across industries, from manufacturing to venture-backed technology to main-street small businesses, the 4-day workweek has credibility from skeptics and believers alike.
4-day workweeks: the benefits
Seventy companies in the UK are currently mid-way through an academic-reviewed 6-month pilot of the 4-day workweek, and 85% of the companies are “likely” or “extremely likely” to keep it for the long-term, according to an article in The New York Times.
Many companies report a boost in recruiting, improved retention, reduced burnout, and no loss of productivity or company performance. This could be a serious win, as companies are scrambling to re-engage employees and retain their top talent amidst a shaky economy.
We saw similar results at Uncharted when we piloted the 4-day workweek in 2020, leading us to decide to keep it after our 3-month pilot. The company Buffer reported a 2-year analysis of the 4-day workweek earlier this year that found 91% of their team is more productive working four days.
Many companies I’ve worked with say that their interest in the 4-day workweek stemmed from a visceral belief that the traditional way of working just, well, wasn’t working, and there had to be a better way. Employees experienced too many meetings, increased burnout, lower engagement, and not enough time to get the most important work done.
For actionable tips to improve company culture, recruitment, professional development, employee performance, wellness, and recognition:
4-day workweeks: the challenges
The 4-day workweek is not a remedy for all the problems in the modern workplace. In my experience piloting the 4-day workweek at Uncharted and then making it company policy, the 4-day workweek is more of a diagnostic tool that surfaces what’s not working in the business than the solution to all the problems in the workplace.
If you're a leader looking for a quick fix, the 4-day workweek is not for you. In fact, my experience working 4-day workweeks over the last 2+ years at Uncharted has taught me that the companies most successful at operating on shorter workweeks are those who continually practice and refine their approach, their communication, and their prioritization.
From setting a small number of priorities and managers coaching their employees on where to direct their time and attention, to protecting deep work time and clearly communicating with external stakeholders, a successful 4-day workweek requires a team willing to iterate and course-correct. (Of course, that’s also necessary if you’re working five days or longer.)
While some companies with business models that bill by the hour might struggle to work fewer hours and hit their numbers, companies from all sectors (including law firms, banks, and retail shops) are piloting the 4-day workweek.
The 4-day workweek is more of a diagnostic tool that surfaces what’s not working in the business than the solution to all the problems in the workplace.
Still curious? How to pilot a 4-day workweek at your organization
I’ve observed both firsthand and while coaching that the 4-day workweek is a powerful force for teams to get smarter about how they work and to keep employees engaged.
If you’re ready to get started, I recommend testing it with a time-bound trial to determine if a 4-day workweek will work at your company. With a pilot, you’re not permanently committing to a change in policy. You are simply creating an unbiased, data-driven experiment to equip you with the learning and data to make an informed decision based on company and employee needs.
Here are a few other prompts to consider.
1. Determine your purpose for piloting
- What metrics or outcomes will tell us that the 4-day workweek has been a success for our organization?
The first step in considering a 4-day workweek pilot is to get clear on your specific purpose for doing so! Many companies are interested in the recruiting and retention benefits. Others want to regain control of their workweek and get smarter about how the week is structured. Whatever your reason, being clear on the purpose will set you up to design, communicate, and evaluate the pilot successfully.
2. Consider what could go wrong first & plan ahead of time
- If we pilot a 4-day workweek and it ends up not working, what factors/decisions/steps led to that outcome? How might we mitigate those up-front? What are the biggest questions or concerns we have at the outset?
Complete a premortem: an exercise that identifies all the ways an upcoming project could go wrong and possibly fail. Then, when these risk factors have been identified, teams can develop proactive mitigation techniques to address them.
3. Develop a communication plan
- If you decide to pilot a 4-day workweek, who are the most important people that need to know before you start the pilot (both internal and external)? What communication strategy would be most effective in getting their buy-in?
The success of the 4-day workweek is directly connected to effectively communicating with internal and external stakeholders about your plans. I often hear that teams are most concerned about what external stakeholders might think (clients, partners, investors, etc.).
When implemented well, a 4-day workweek can reimagine how an organization works internally and externally. But it’s not for everyone, nor is it a one-size-fits-all solution for every business or every industry; every company is unique, which means it will take careful planning, proactive communication, and the willingness of the team to iterate and course-correct along the way to make a 4-day workweek work for them.
Reimagining the workplace and keeping employees motivated and productive is top of mind for any HR leader.
To set your organization up for success, check out our checklist made just for HR pros.