Many experts are predicting the slow and painful death of the five-day workweek in 2023. Thanks to the pandemic, we have seen a considerable shift in professional priorities and work style over the last few years.
Likely, the work landscape will never return to what it was before, with only a third to 40% of workers returning to the office in line with pre-pandemic levels.
Many gained the option to work remotely, and now enjoy:
- Increased flexibility during the workday.
- Reduced travel and parking costs.
- Less time spent commuting.
The ‘Four Day Work Week’ is also being trialled globally, with Australia recently adding its thoughts to the mix. The aim is to reduce work hours by 20% but maintain 100% productivity.
Will it become the new norm?
The Case For Abolishing The Five-Day Workweek.
Return-to-work preferences are complex.
Employers are discovering that one-size-fits-all policies won’t be enough, as about 23% of workers prefer to be in the office full-time, 32% want to divorce it forever, and about half want some form of hybrid work.
There’s also a lot of empty office space out there.
It’s difficult to quantify the exact percentage, but reports suggest that up to 50% of office spaces are currently unoccupied.
Are these factors allowing us to create a win-win scenario for all, where employers reduce the size of their office space leases while employees gain an extra day off (or at least work from home)?
(Related: Complete Guide To Transforming Culture).
Which Countries Are Losing Faith In The Five-Day Workweek?
In America, 71% of individuals (Newsweek Poll) support a four-day workweek. Other countries worldwide are experimenting with shorter hours, with various degrees of success:
- Denmark: While Denmark’s official workweek is 37 hours long, the Odsherred Municipality implemented a four-day, 35-hour workweek in 2019, which still exists.
- Belgium: Unlike most four-day weeks (32 hours, eight hours a day), Belgium’s programme follows the 4/10 plan, which retains the 40 hours per week requirement in four days. Office workers can legally turn off work devices on the designated day off.
- Canada: Nova Scotia implemented a nine-month pilot programme that increased productivity and employee satisfaction. Another six-month trial featuring 38 companies from the US and Canada kicked off in April 2022.
- Germany: More than 150 companies in Germany have switched to a four-day week, and a recent survey indicated that 71% of German companies favoured it.
- Iceland: Early to the trend, Iceland trialled reducing the working hours (from 40 to 36) of 2,500 employees in 2015 and 2017. Reports following the trials indicated reduced stress, better health, improved work-life balance, and increased productivity.
- Ireland: While four-day weeks have yet to be officially implemented by Ireland’s government, they are the subject of much discussion. A six-month trial in 2022 used the 100-80-100 model and included at least 20 companies, with raving success.
- Japan: Microsoft Japan tested a four-day week in 2019, and productivity spiked by 39.9%! Japan’s culture is notoriously steeped in workaholism, prompting the government to foster a better culture to reduce employees’ tendency to overwork themselves to death.
- Scotland: Devoted 10 million pounds to a trial experiment for a four-day workweek in 2022 and used the 100-80-100 model. The trial succeeded, and several businesses then upheld the abbreviated workweek!
There is talk of Australia adopting the four-day workweek under the 100/80/100 model.
Alyssa Shaw, campaign co-director for 4-Day Week Australia, explains it as “100 per cent of the pay, 80 per cent of the hours and 100 per cent commitment to the same productivity.”
A four-day workweek is not to be confused with a compressed schedule where workers are expected to complete 38-40 hours of work in four days. We’ll discuss this shortly.
Why Do Some People Enjoy Working Long Hours?
Workers have complained about long hours as long as the five-day workweek has existed. These include:
- Burnout (5 signs of burnout at work).
- Weight gains and impaired sleep.
- Compromised personal relationships.
As always, there are exceptions. While most people don’t want to spend 50-70 hours per week at work, a non-insignificant proportion of the population does.
These “hyper-performers” often outperform the rest of the workers by a factor of 5, and curbing their ability to do so would be a mistake. The workplace is not immune to the Pareto Principle, which implies:
- 80% of the results are delivered by 20% of your workforce.
The Pareto Principle also suggests that a small number of your employees cause the majority of issues in your workplace. You must develop clear processes for identifying these employees, helping them improve and, if necessary, parting ways with them.
Hyper-performers view work differently. For them, work is a game.
It is intrinsically rewarding, and they enjoy the challenge of solving work-related problems. Their mindset is best captured by philosopher Karl Popper:
This perspective pushes back against the idea of shorter workweeks, and raises important questions:
- Instead of mandating fewer working hours, perhaps we need to help people find more meaning in their work?
- Is there something that hyper-performers can teach us about mindsets that make work more enjoyable?
- Can these mindsets be taught?
How To Shorten A Five-Day Workweek To Four Days.
Parkinson’s Law states that workload expands to the amount of time you allocate to it. Following the law, we exhaust all 40 hours in a five-day week because incentives to finish early don’t typically exist.
The problem is caused by both employees and employers:
- Employees are productive for as little as 3 hours in an eight-hour office day, filling their days with smoking breaks, social media checks, and personal conversations.
- Employers are guilty of creating pointless meetings and endless email threads, creating a culture of “my real work happens before 9am and after 5pm”.
Shorter deadlines will force both guilty parties to look for efficiencies. Right?
(Related: How To Build Positive Workplace Culture).
Initial data supports this theory. When surveyed, none of the 27 companies participating in the global four-day workweek trial responded that they plan a return to their former five-day routine.
After a year in the trial, for example, Buffer registered higher output, more productivity, and timely task completion.
Employees increased the pace of their days while the company slashed redundant meetings and social events.
Why Five-Day Workweeks Are Here To Stay.
While technically a win, Buffer’s findings highlight a sad truth – there’s a huge amount of slack in our workforce.
Almost everyone is almost certainly wasting a considerable amount of time.
A company that institutes a four-day workweek is vulnerable to a competitor that builds a workplace culture where no time is wasted. One where a five-day workweek means just that – five days of solid productivity.
All things being equal, 20% extra output per year is significant. Across five years, it’s game-changing.
Why Do We Work Five Days, Anyway?
It’s hard to comprehend that there was a time when ‘weekends’ were like any other day.
Yet, in the mid-19th century, it was common for workers to log 60 to 90-hour, seven-day workweeks in newly mechanised factories.
Henry Ford became one of the first employees in the Western world to establish a five-day workweek. Here’s a quick summary:
- Ford Motor Company employed a large base of middle-class people.
- In 1926, Ford was intelligent enough to respond to pressure from the labour movement by supporting his employees.
- At the time, he wrote in a company newsletter, ‘Just as the eight-hour day opened our way to prosperity in America so that the five-day workweek will open our way to still greater prosperity.’
- Finally, in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act as part of the New Deal, a series of programmes designed to help move the US out of the Great Depression.
- The act formally codified the 44-hour workweek (two years later, the limit was adjusted to 40). Any work done beyond that threshold meant employers would have to pay their workers overtime.
Hybrid Working Model: A Valid Compromise?
While the initial data about four-day weeks is interesting, it’s safe to assume that the adoption curve will not be steep.
Meanwhile, employers are finding the concept of hybrid work much easier to swallow.
Under this arrangement, employees work remotely and report to the office a chosen amount of days per week. It comes with several perks, including the flexibility mentioned above.
However, many office-based jobs face challenges when it comes to hybrid working. These include:
- Lack of social connection: Office settings, by nature, build physical relationships and foster community with colleagues. This can be detrimental to those who live alone.
- Cost of office spaces: A decline in office occupancy significantly affects the economy. Cities are less busy, affecting cafe workers, transport, and cleaning/maintenance roles.
- Organising meetings: It can be harder to coordinate large groups of people to be online simultaneously, especially if they have additional responsibilities or work in different time zones.
Hybrid work is an effective strategy for providing employees with the ability to manage their time whilst also ensuring that days in the office are retained for connection and project-building.
(Related: WFH Checklist For Employers With Hybrid Teams).
Is The Five-Day Week Really Dying?
For most companies, the five-day workweek is a necessary evil. While shortening it is certainly possible, it’s not likely for the reasons I outlined above.
Last, let’s remember that surveys, trials and real life don’t always correlate. While companies in the four-day workweek study found ways to make a four-day week work for them, they were not randomly sampled.
I suspect a randomly generated sample would produce much less favourable results, as a huge proportion of the population prefers five days of work interspersed with social media and smoko breaks instead of four days of fast pace – regardless of what they say.