The past few years have seen a lot of changes to what the cadence of working looks like. Some companies have moved to remote work, while others made significant changes to how the work weeks are structured.
Just a few years ago, many of us could never have imagined the far reaching societal impacts and shifts that have occurred in the wake of the pandemic. A rethink of what’s essential in life was a prevalent side effect. And for many, that included examining the balance (or lack thereof) between working lives and personal lives.
Experiencing the flexibility of mandated remote work left a lot of people questioning how they ever endured a daily commute or the exacting structure of the traditional office workweek. So, even though the world continues to return to a more “normal” state, the idea of “normal” and the future of work is forever changed for a lot of people.
Nine in 10 remote-capable employees want some level of remote-work flexibility moving forward, according to recent data from analytics and advisory company Gallup. If they don’t get it? More than half (54%) of those working from home and 38% of hybrid workers said they’ll look for a new job.
And, of course, work location isn’t the only topic that’s been discussed over the past few years. The five-day workweek is also under scrutiny.
And more companies are beginning to explore whether greater flexibility in this area could have effective benefits for both sides of the employee-employer relationship.
Is the future of work looking more flexible?
Apparently so, and it’s estimated the predicted surge in flexible working could contribute more than $10 trillion to the global economy by 2030.
The History of the 5-Day Workweek
When we think of the average modern workweek, the nine-to-five, five-days-a-week model is what comes to mind for most of us. After all, it has been the foremost model in America (and many other places, too) for the better part of a century. And it has pretty well entrenched itself in our culture.
But this model is a completely man-made construct. And, believe it or not, it can be deconstructed.
While the 40-hour workweek seems normal now, the amount of time we spend in work has morphed notably through history. In fact, the five-day, 40-hour workweek was a triumphant win of the 20th century when you contrast it to the typical six day, 60- to 100-hour workweek of the 19th century.
Workers pushed for more, and they got it
Back in 1866, a coalition of workers organized to form the National Labor Union. The group called on Congress to mandate an eight-hour workday. While their efforts were unsuccessful (and the Labor Union dissolved in 1873), awareness and support for labor reform began to build.
Twenty years later, in 1886, workers across the US held a national strike for the eight hour work day. A Chicago-based rally in support of the movement ended with a bombing in Haymarket Square, leading to the event being referred to as the Haymarket Affair.
30 years after that, in 1916, the Supreme Court approved the Adamson Act. This granted an eight-hour workday for railroad workers, which served to avoid a railroad strike.
By 1926, Ford Motor Company factory workers were granted a 40-hour workweek, making the company one of the first in America to adopt this model. Henry Ford’s son, and the company’s then-president, Edsel Ford, explained the following in an article published in the New York Times: “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation… The Ford Company always has sought to promote (an) ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly every man should have more time to spend with his family.”
In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act limiting the workweek to 44 hours and then 40 hours by 1940.
That brief historical timeline is just a snapshot from the US labor market.
And of course, a lot happened in terms of incremental labor rights movements in different parts of the world. In between those events, and since then, from wage and equal pay standards to discrimination and leave rights, people have continued to fight for more rights for workers. However, not much has changed with regard to the 40-hour workweek.
Future of Work Predictions Versus Reality
Let’s jump back in time to 1930. A new home would have cost around $6,000 a year. A new car $600. And gas for that car would have come in at around 10 cents a gallon. Can you imagine?
That year, economist John Maynatd Keynes famously predicted advancements in technology would mean we’d all be working just 15 hours a week. And evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley predicted we’d whittle down to a two-day workweek.
“The human being can consume so much and no more,” said Hunley. “When we reach the point when the work produces all the goods that it needs in two days, as it inevitably will, we must curtail our production of goods and turn our attention to the great problem of what to do with our new leisure.”
So what happened to all that promised leisure time?
As it turns out, there was no ceiling to how many goods we could produce or consume. So the more productive we became (and we did become more productive with all our advancements in technology) the more stuff we decided we needed to buy.
We are substantially more productive as a workforce now than during any other time in history, yet we continue to endure a workweek that was established when Roosevelt was elected for his third term as president, the second world war raging, and when the very first McDonald’s restaurant opened.
We’re also largely stuck in the concept of synchronous work, or working together in real time. A century ago, we needed to be in the same place and work at the same time to be productive. There was no alternative. Now, we’re increasingly separating the physical location from work, but not yet the schedule. How can work truly be flexible when team members are forced to work within the same time window each day, regardless of differences in lifestyle, personal responsibilities, and periods of peak performances?
As more and more companies test out methods of work flexibility, like a shortened workweek, and more case studies prove the undeniable benefits, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before there’s another big change to the future of work.
The 4-Day Workweek: Who’s Really Doing It?
The four-day workweek gained mainstream traction in 2020 as companies scrambled to keep a burnt-out, fully-remote workforce productive amid a pandemic.
Turns out, employees got happier, and worked harder, when companies offered flexible schedules and reduced hours at the same rate of pay.
Landmark studies in Iceland and Japan reveal that the four-day workweek may be a viable solution for certain companies, especially those coping with problems such as a stressed-out workforce, deadline efficiency, or low employment engagement. The 4-day workweek was also shown to help with talent acquisition and employee retention in a tight labor market.
As of today, 86% of Iceland’s working population has shifted to a shorter workweek.
In another study (the world’s largest to date) 60 UK-based companies participated in a four-day workweek trial for the second half of 2022. Ninety percent of them kept the shortened week going even after the trial period ended, with 30 percent committing to a permanent change.
As you might guess, employees are all about this idea, with one survey reporting that 98% of respondents believe a four-day workweek would improve their mental health and 97% saying that they’d be more productive.
To get that four day workweek, most employees say they’re willing to put in four 10-hour days, but that may not be necessary. Many companies are offering standard eight-hour workdays and four-day workweeks, only requiring employees to work a total of 32 hours a week.
In the United States, companies such as Panasonic North America, Bolt, Buffer, Basecamp, Kickstarter, DNS Filter, Monograph, Nectafy, and G21, have embraced the 4-day workweek.
What Are the Benefits of a 4-Day WorkWeek?
Below are the advantages that organizations have gained by adopting a 4-day workweek system.
If you believe that more hours worked per week results in increased productivity, you may be surprised by the results that companies have had by testing the four-day workweek.
For example, Bolt, a fintech startup, permanently implemented a four-day workweek at the start of 2022 following a successful three-month pilot. Bolt collected high scores across morale, productivity, retention, and recruitment with 87 percent of managers reporting that their team was able to maintain productivity and service levels in 20 percent less time.
Part of the reason productivity remains or accelerates is due to heightened employee motivation. The four-day model is largely regarded by employees as a benefit which they are motivated to retain. Additionally, a shorter work workweek is largely viewed as a way an organization supports its staff by promoting employee wellness and reducing stress.
Organizations report that employees take fewer personal and sick days with a four-day work week. The extra day of each week allows employees to make medical appointments, make time for wellness needs, and attend to personal commitments without taking time away from the job.
An abridged workweek equates to cost savings for both the employer and employee. Many companies report reduced facilities and utilities costs. Employees save money by spending less on commuting, childcare, and food, in addition to the savings associated with taking less time off work.
The pandemic forced organizations to redesign their work environments to be more flexible. Employees now expect flexibility from a potential employer. Peruse job listings today, and you are bound to see many boasting a four-day workweek. With a tight labor market, part of the new “normal” that top candidates are looking for in potential employment are jobs with benefits, including a shortened workweek.
Just as a four-day workweek can attract talent, it can also retain it. The benefits to employees are numerous:
- Reduced stress
- Cost savings
- An extra personal day per week
- More time for family, friends, hobbies, and weekend get-a-ways
- Feeling supported by a company
The Disadvantages of a 4-Day Work Week
To be sure, the positives outweigh the negatives when weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the four-day work week. However, there are some drawbacks to be wary of when shifting to fewer working days.
Complex to Implement
Changing something as fundamental as the number of days work is divided throughout a week is not a simple task. It is bound to impact areas across all departments and management levels, making the implementation of a four-day workweek quite a complex undertaking.
Some organizations should (or must) be open to the public or to clients for a set number of hours or days a week. Providing adequate coverage requires altering days off for segments or the workforce, such as some groups taking Mondays off and another group getting Fridays off.
Some parts of an organization may not have the option for a four-day work week, but other parts will. For instance, workers on a production line or at a construction site will not easily be able to transition to a four-day workweek, but office workers can. This can build resentment within the workforce.
Depending on your position, the need to distribute the same workload over fewer days can be challenging, potentially causing stress and requiring investments in more effective time management.
How Will the 4-Day Workweek Fit into the Future of Work?
The ways we work have changed so much from the industrial revolution to the digital revolution. There have been continual efforts to boost our productivity, or at least do the same things with more automation and less manual effort. Yet, the five-day workweek remains.
Old habits are hard to break though, especially when they’re fairly universal. So even though countless trials and studies have clearly proven ‘less is more’ when it comes to the standard workweek, it could take some time before we see sweeping change across the working world. But if the situation shown by the statistics and examples above continue, it may only be a matter of time before we forget a five-day workweek was ever even a thing.