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The Four-Day Workweek: What Business Leaders Need to Know

May 29, 2024

Major changes in our society and culture can take a long time. This is especially true when it comes to major and/or new legislation that will have a wide impact on our society. Such is the case within our current debate about changing the workweek to four days per week. Before anyone cheers, panics or sketches plans for implementation, it’s worth reviewing the forces driving the current conversation and some background on how we arrived at our workweek’s current 40-hour/5-day structure. 

Headwinds Driving the Movement

Several converging factors are driving momentum for the four-day workweek. Firstly, CEOs, under increasing pressure from technological advancements and global megatrends, are feeling the impetus to reinvent their businesses. This drive toward innovation is coupled with a COVID-19 reckoning that has highlighted the importance of hybrid work models and prioritizing employee well-being. Additionally, the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) promises heightened productivity levels, making the idea of a shorter workweek more feasible. Notably, there is a strong correlation between AI proficiency and openness to the four-day workweek, with many businesses considering its implementation. Moreover, rising union activities have fueled the conversation. The sentiment is echoed by various trade unions and politicians, as seen in campaigns and pilot programs like those in the United Kingdom.  

This connection between productivity, the labor movement and the structure of the workweek has deep historical roots in the United States. The evolution from an unregulated workweek to the 40-hour/five-day workweek we know was marked by numerous milestones, including agitation for improved conditions in the 1800s, the introduction of an eight-hour workday bill in Congress in 1866 and the passing of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, later amended in 1940 to establish the modern workweek. Companies during these decades were harnessing industrialization to rapidly increase productivity, and a premise behind much of the period’s labor agitation was that if a company finds a way to save time without sacrificing output, some of that time should be given back to employees. While this lens lost steam in the decades that followed, it remains very relevant in today’s discussion. The current U.S. debate was kickstarted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who introduced a bill to set a standard of a 32-hour workweek with no loss of pay. A similar bill was introduced in the House in 2021 and reintroduced this year as a companion bill to the Sanders legislation. 

Although the path to national adoption is likely improbable in the immediate future, it remains plausible in the long term. Depending on political dynamics, we can anticipate increased deliberations and efforts to garner public support for Sanders’ legislation and the concepts underpinning it. Just as the Affordable Care Act underwent years of debate before eventual passage, the journey toward a shorter workweek may similarly require patience and perseverance.  

Overall, however, with influential stakeholders embracing the concept and successful trials being conducted worldwide, the discourse on the four-day workweek continues to evolve, reflecting a growing appetite for work-life balance, for organizational adaptability and for new ideas around how businesses can exist within the changing world.  

What Business Leaders Can Do Today

Whether a business leader sees the four-day workweek as an opportunity to differentiate, a regulatory headache to get ahead of or something between the two, for many there remains the simple question: How does a four-day workweek really work?  

It’s important to note that the leading authority on the four-day workweek, 4 Day Work Week Global, views the implementation of this concept on a broad spectrum. Organizations in 4 Day Work Week Global’s official pilot programs have implemented some version of the following five options:  

  1. Staggered: Staff take alternating days off. For instance, one team works Monday through Thursday and another Tuesday through Friday.  
  2. Fifth day stoppage: The company shuts down one day per week.  
  3. Decentralized: Different functions operate using different work patterns—typically using a combination of the first two methods. 
  4. Annualized: Staff work a 32-hour average working week calculated on the scale of one year. This is popular among seasonal businesses.  
  5. Conditional: This is like the decentralized model, but the entitlement of a four-day workweek for the department is tied to performance.  

In addition to various implementation options, there is a spectrum in terms of the extent to which the additional time off is protected. Some organizations have taken intentional measures to ensure the day off is as protected as weekend days, but others operate with the expectation of occasionally checking in on work during the added day off. It’s important business leaders understand the wide range of options for implementing this, and that they thread the details to their understanding of their people. Any change initiative of this magnitude needs to deeply align with the organization’s existent culture, structure and strategy to succeed.  

To effectively implement initiatives like a four-day workweek, companies must undergo significant work redesign to reduce hours while maintaining productivity. This model cannot be successful if the ways of working, key performance indicators (KPIs) and expectations all remain the same for employees, yet they are expected to do it in less time per week. Addressing this requires streamlining operations, leveraging technology like AI to eliminate administrative tasks and focusing on high-impact work. Something like a key activity analysis—an assessment that can be used to analyze what and how work is being done—would be an excellent first step for any department or organization looking to launch a pilot program. This analysis would then be followed by defining clear goals, auditing meetings to improve efficiency, enabling employees to focus on priority tasks by eliminating non-essential work, embracing asynchronous communication and resetting employee expectations through trial periods and productivity training.  

One lesson we can all learn from the global pandemic is the importance of equity and inclusion in the implementation of these programs. If the implementation is only reserved for white-collar workers in an organization with a mix of deskless, frontline and administrative employees, it will only create resentment and broaden the inequality gap. That’s why choosing an option that best fits your culture, structure and strategy is imperative. And choosing the right structure is only the first step. Change this massive requires thoughtful planning and communication throughout to enable employees to embrace changes and be successful in the organization’s future state.  

The flexibility that is inherent in the four-day workweek addresses three critical elements of the employee value proposition: benefits and rewards, work environment and emotional connection and well-being. At the height of the 2021/2022 Great Resignation, we saw top tech companies notably position themselves as early adopters with better parental leave benefits, and as a result, they capitalized on winning and keeping top talent. Business leaders in industries where recruiting and retaining talent is a top concern should give careful consideration not only to the proposition of a four-day workweek, but to how early they want to be in adopting the approach. The organizations that find success as early adopters will garner a boost in recruiting top talent and a positive impact on their reputation. 

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