HomeFuture of WorkBusiness TransformationCan my organization ever shift to a four-day workweek? And if so, how?

Can my organization ever shift to a four-day workweek? And if so, how?

  • 5 Min Read

Adam Hickman Ph.D., VP of Vice President of Learning, Org Development, and Cast Members at Partners a Walt Disney Company, examines the lessons from countries that have adopted any type of four-day work week, and what companies can learn about transitioning to a four-day workweek

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The idea of a four-day workweek is not entirely foreign; however, its potential implementation in the United States raises valid concerns among business leaders. They ponder whether their companies can maintain profitability and productivity with a shorter workweek.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the world into what I call The Great Work from Home Experiment, revealed that some leaders and managers struggled to effectively oversee their teams when physical presence was no longer a factor. This situation sheds light on a fundamental truth: effective leadership is not solely innate. Instead, it exposed the capabilities of those in leadership roles. COVID-19 catalyzed distinguishing between exceptional leaders and those who merely occupied a position.

While the notion of a compressed workweek may instill apprehension in leaders, it’s crucial to confront the reality of what employees are experiencing. The concept of a four-day workweek has been simmering beneath the surface and is poised to gain momentum.

So, what do we know about the four-day workweek? How does it impact core HR metrics, including engagement? And can we learn anything about implementation from those countries where a four-day workweek is more popularized?

Lessons from the four-day workweek in Europe

Let’s summarize what has taken place in Europe. According to an OECD survey, workers in Switzerland have one of the shortest work weeks globally at 34.6 hours, but the actual hours can vary depending on the industry and employer, with the law capping it at 45 hours weekly. Belgium has pioneered a legislative change in Europe, introducing a four-day workweek without any salary cut, offering flexibility to its employees. Culture always dictates engagement and performance. This finding indicates that HR leaders can help make this transition possible by focusing on culture and engagement.

 Despite having one of the longer work weeks in the OECD, Portugal has embraced the four-day workweek movement with a government-backed pilot program that aims to offer full pay for reduced hours while ensuring productivity. In the UK, a large-scale trial involving over 60 companies and 3,300 employees found that the four-day workweek improved productivity, well-being, environmental impact, and gender equality, prompting companies to consider it a permanent shift. Meanwhile, Germany, already having a shorter workweek at 34.2 hours, sees strong support from trade unions and workers, with 71% wanting an even shorter four-day workweek.

A four-day workweek works!

Geographically, a four-day workweek has proven effective, and even more, most effective as it relates to mitigating burnout or increasing items of wellbeing.

The data presents information on the engagement, wellbeing, and burnout levels of U.S. employees who work 35 or more hours per week, segmented by the number of days they typically work each week. For those who typically work four days a week, 38% are engaged, 17% are actively disengaged, 63% report thriving wellbeing, and 23% feel burned out often or always. Employees who usually work five days a week show similar engagement levels at 38%, but a slightly lower active disengagement rate at 12%. Additionally, 57% of them experience thriving wellbeing, and 26% frequently feel burned out. These results have been adjusted to account for differences in job types across employees, as per the Gallup Panel survey conducted from March 9-23, 2020.

Yet, the question remains for many HR leaders: How can my organization ever go to a four-day workweek?

Transitioning to a four-day workweek

Discussions about altering the structure of the workweek have a long history. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company introduced a standardized five-day work week, replacing the widely practiced six-day week. Ford’s management believed that reducing the number of workdays while maintaining the same pay level would boost productivity by encouraging more significant effort during working hours.

Underneath the enduring discussion surrounding the workweek length, a more fundamental inquiry arises concerning the essence of work. While Ford aimed to boost productivity, leaders today face not only productivity but also the challenge of creating and sustaining a thriving workplace with flexibility while keeping wellbeing at the forefront of decisions.

Although four-day workweeks may seem appealing to certain individuals or organizations, initiatives that aim to regulate work-life “balance” rely on two questionable assumptions:

  1. That work is inherently negative and should be minimized or avoided.
  2. That we possess a universal solution that will effectively accommodate everyone’s needs.

As real as these assumptions sometimes feel, there is one role that HR, OD, and L&D leaders should turn to and focus on to help understand the possibility of a four-day work week. That role is those who lead people in your organization. Investing in growth and development is one item leaders often miss but is most important in advancing your strategy. Managers own up to 70% of their team’s engagement every day through every interaction.

While nations around the world experiment with and, in some cases, embrace this shift, it’s incumbent upon organizational leaders and managers to approach the topic with an open mind, critical analysis, and a dedication to understanding the unique needs of their teams.

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