Companies struggling to hire and hold onto employees during the Great Resignation are adopting an approach often talked about but rarely implemented — the four-day work week.
Proponents say the model can improve workers’ mental health and prevent burnout. It can also help productivity, aid with recruitment and retention, and even work to slow down climate change. The four-day work week has also gained traction abroad, with companies and organizations in Japan, Spain, and Iceland experimenting with the option.
Microsoft Japan tested a four-day work week in 2019 and found productivity rose by nearly 40%. Meanwhile, in 2020 in Spain software developer Software DELSOL became the country’s first business to switch to a 36-hour week – without cutting pay. Most recently, more than 3,000 workers in the U.K. are starting a pilot four-day work week program, from financial services employees to fish-and-chip servers.
In the U.S., the four-day work week is also making a resurgence, as companies and their leaders look for ways to increase employee satisfaction while maintaining productivity and optimally their workforce.
Software company Signifyd moved to a four-day, 32-hour week at the start of 2022 after successfully piloting wellness days and a shortened work week in mid-2021. An increase in burnout during COVID, with remote work blurring job and home demands, prompted SVP of people operations Emily Mikailli and other company leaders to make the move.
“The line between work life and home life [was] becoming much more blurred,” she says. “It’s one thing to put individual stress and burnout reduction tools into employees’ hands in the form of webinars, mental health resources, workshops, and wellness weeks – all of which are great and very important – but it’s entirely another to stand up as a company and take control of the situation in a direct way.”
All Signifyd employees now work four days, with the majority taking off every Friday. Almost immediately, Mikailli saw an increase in job applications and employee referrals. Employees have told her they have more time to focus on projects, feel less burnt out, and believe they have more control of their lives. Productivity hasn’t slipped.
“The feedback has been positive beyond our wildest expectations,” says Mikailli, “from individual contributors up to senior management.”
Mikailli says providing the same level of support to employees has been seamless. But a good deal of planning and practice has gone into the shift, and trust and ownership are paramount, she adds.
Yet not all experiments with a four-day structure look the same, not do all trials succeed. A pilot in Iceland with the Reykjavik City Council and the Icelandic government cut at most five hours from the week, and in some cases just one, hardly the 32-hour work experience one might expect.
A two-year trial in Sweden ended after nurses at a city-run senior care center cut their shifts to six-hour days, and the city of Gothenburg had to hire additional staff to take over the missing hours. Nurses reported getting more sleep, and feeling less tired — but the $1.3 million for 17 extra people over two years was not something that the city felt it could sustain. It pulled, pulling the plug in 2017.
The science charity Wellcome Trust also decided not to move forward with a planned four-day work week trial in 2019. TheReasons the nonprofit’s cited reasons focused mostly on how to run their operations; with jobs as varied as managing grants to running the museum seven days a week, shifting to four-day work weeks “could place additional pressure on staff if not managed carefully,” wrote Ed Whiting, its director of strategy.
For Lindsay Tjepkema, CEO and co-founder of video marketing platform Casted, the four-day work week just hasn’t resonated. She wants her team to have flexibility, but the four-day work week “is not equitable because not everyone can take Fridays off,” she says.
“Until Fridays are like Saturdays and Sundays and the rest of the country or the world are largely not working then, you’re still going to have to work on Fridays,” Tjepkema says.
What’s more, giving all employees a certain day off only shoves all their flexible needs onto one specific day rather than giving them options. So, instead, her hybrid company with unlimited paid time off gives employees flexibility in their own way.
“I want people to be able to take what they need when they need it, but you still need some structure because it can become chaos,” she says.
Jessica Aronoff, CEO of the Cayton Children’s Museum in Santa Monica, does allow staff to have one full day off each week, letting them to choose which day they’d prefer. The one caveat is that everyone has to show up Thursdays for teams to get together. Meetings are also shorter so staff has more time to focus on projects, a step experts say can help with productivity. Compensation has stayed the same, and with inflation cutting into the merit of small raises, Aronoff believes employees will value working fewer hours over any raise they may quickly forget.
“We’re keeping people at 100% pay for 80% time with the expectation of 100% efficiency and workload,” Aronoff says. “We’re calling it our play day. We’re trying to brand it as part of what we’re about as an institution.”
Crucial to getting the pilot up and running was input from staff about their wants and needs, including less time commuting and more balance between their work and home life. Aronoff will continue to survey staff on how the pilot is going and whether or not to make the four-day work week permanent. In the meantime, at the start of staff meetings, the team does an ice breaker talking about what they did on their own play day.
Aronoff believes this fiscally-prudent investment in staff will show them their importance to the organization, while helping the company during a hard time to hire: “If ever there was a time to show some bold and creative ways of valuing your people in a way that’s financially sustainable, now is the time.”