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Challenges of a Four-Day Workweek

A four-day workweek doesn’t always mean that employees maintain their pay and benefits. Some organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and Stanley Black & Decker, have reportedly used a four-day week as a cost-saving measure and have cut employees’ pay by 20%.15 And short-term trials that demonstrate success with a four-day workweek can differ from long-term outcomes.

Treehouse, an online coding school, implemented a four-day workweek from the get-go in 2013. Its CEO, Ryan Carson, had used the strategy from 2006 at his previous company. As late as 2015, he was publicly praising the compressed week’s benefits, from improved productivity to a more balanced life.17

But in 2016, Carson reinstated a 40-hour workweek at Treehouse and had to lay people off. He said the 32-hour week created a lack of work ethic in himself that was fundamentally detrimental to the business and its mission.18 In 2018, he said he was working 65 hours a week under a regimented schedule beginning at 4:30 a.m. and ending at 6 p.m. with early morning breaks for exercise, breakfast, and time with his wife, but no breaks from 8:30 a.m. on.19

A four-day week that requires people to work 10-hour days can be incompatible with wage regulations or prove too grueling for employees, failing to either improve productivity or save the company money. In the 1990s, a number of organizations found this to be the case and went with a 9/80 schedule instead, where people work nine hours Monday through Thursday and eight hours every other Friday in exchange for getting alternate Fridays off.20

Not all individuals like the idea of a four-day workweek, for a number of reasons. For example, they may enjoy the social aspects of their jobs or find their work so engaging that they don’t want to do less of it.21 And some workers might find that a compressed week gives them a constant pre-vacation-type pressure to get more work done in less time—a level of stress that’s unsustainable.

Indeed, based on the results of a poll that it conducted in March 2020, Gallup concluded that while individuals working four-day weeks reported lower levels of burnout and higher levels of well-being compared to people working five- or six-day weeks, the percentage of actively disengaged workers was lowest among those who worked five-day weeks.21

Gallup found that for employee engagement, the quality of the work experience was more important than the number of days worked. Simply shortening the workweek is not enough to improve employee engagement in a poorly managed organization. Still, workers do place a high value on schedule flexibility, which can lower stress levels and help them manage other aspects of their lives more effectively, allowing them to be more engaged at work.21

Then there’s the question of industry. It’s relatively easier for jobs that rely on knowledge work to move to a compressed schedule compared to jobs that rely on service work.22 We wouldn’t want to see customer service or tech support, let alone hospitals and fire departments, take three days off per week with zero coverage―though allowing individual workers to have four-day weeks could be possible.

In addition, it may not be possible to increase productivity enough in service or logistics jobs to achieve the same results in fewer hours just by working smarter. There’s a physical limit to how many items Amazon Warehouse employees can pick per hour or how many delivery locations a UPS driver can hit in a day. However, one study did find that call center agents became less productive as their hours increased—it took them longer to handle calls.23

There are also practical and cultural barriers to working fewer days. If working five days a week (or seven in some industries) remains the norm, then the companies that have a shorter workweek may cause frustrating delays at the companies that work longer weeks.15 It takes a mindset shift to accept these delays, knowing that they are supporting workers’ well-being.

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