There’s been a lot of talk about the potential benefits of working a four-day week instead of a five-day week. Making 32 hours the norm instead of 40 can lead to improved well-being for workers without a loss of productivity for businesses.
A number of studies have shown that at some point, productivity decreases as the number of hours worked increases. Forty-hour workweeks may be wearing people out needlessly.
A number of companies worldwide have pulled off a four-day workweek for a year or more, and Japan’s government has recommended it as national policy.1 It’s not a new idea, but it seems to have come under greater consideration since the COVID-19 pandemic generated a broad reevaluation of how we work, including a great work-from-home migration and hybrid office implementation.
The idea behind a four-day workweek is to achieve the same results in fewer hours so people have more time to pursue other interests, spend time with loved ones, and manage their lives.
Companies could benefit through increased sales, decreased worker burnout, and lower turnover, among other positives.
Emphasizing results instead of hours logged means that there’s no need to cut pay or benefits.
A major shift in how we think about and approach work is a precursor to standardizing a four-day workweek.
A four-day workweek is, ideally, a 32-hour workweek with no loss in productivity, pay, or benefits.2 Depending on the company and the industry, everyone might work Monday through Thursday and have Fridays off. Other possibilities include allowing each employee to choose their extra day off or having a company-wide policy of a different third day off, such as Monday or Wednesday.
There are pros and cons to each choice. For example, keeping everyone on the same schedule increases opportunities for collaborative work but leaves a company unstaffed on days when most others are working. A flexible third day off may be better for individual employees but harder for teams.3
“The five-day week is a nineteenth-century construct that is not fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.”4
The Origins of Working Less
The idea of getting more work done in less time to increase time off is not new. We all have Ford Motor Co. (and the Industrial Revolution) to thank for our current five-day workweek instead of six days. What began as an experiment at some plants in July 1926 became company policy by September that same year.5
A federal law called the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), passed in 1938, mandated a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour, a 44-hour workweek, and overtime pay of 1.5 times a worker’s regular pay. The act provided for a 42-hour workweek in 1939 and a 40-hour workweek in 1940.6
Henry Ford had been contemplating the idea of a five-day workweek since at least 1916 before implementing it in 1926.
Experiments with a four-day workweek in the United States have been taking place since at least the 1990s.7 Another experiment took place in 2004, when the government of Spanish Fork City, Utah, implemented a schedule of four 10-hour days for city employees.8 Utah’s state government experimented with a 4/10 schedule from 2008 through 2011.9 And the idea was picking up steam even before the pandemic, with more job openings offering it in 2018 and 2019 than in 2017.10