The Future of Work – What is the four day work week?

What is the four day work week?

We think a lot about the future of work at MAQE. For example, we recently announced our intention to implement the Rendanheyi model. But we have decided it’s time for us to actually start talking about some of the bigger ideas around what that future could be.

So in the first instalment of our “future of work” series we’ll be examining the idea of a four day work week. What is it? How does it “work”? And is it actually viable?

Let’s dig in.

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What is the four day work week? Is it a real thing?

The movement towards a four day work week is beginning to gather momentum. The Spanish government recently announced a full trial of the four day work week. Meaning Spain is the first country in the world to trial this idea at scale.

Spain will be trialling a four day, 32 hour work week without cutting workers compensation. An estimated 200 to 400 Spanish companies will take part in the trial and the government will compensate these businesses for any higher costs that might be incurred. This part of the trial will be financed by the EU Coronavirus fund.

Although Barcelona was the birthplace of the maximum 8 hour working day, way back in 1919, it’s not just governments on the Iberian peninsula that are considering a four day week. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern spoke about the idea in 2020 and the idea has also gained serious traction in Germany.

So it’s safe to say that the idea of a four day work week is not a fanciful pipe dream.

While the benefits to workers of a four day work week may seem a bit obvious, what are the potential benefits to businesses?

Business benefits of a four day work week illustrated by money going up.

Business benefits of a four day week

Four day work week trials are not really new. In fact, Microsoft Japan conducted a four day work week trial back in 2019.

The results were encouraging. Microsoft announced that productivity actually increased by 40%. Electricity costs fell by 23% and they saw a 60% reduction in printing. 

Employees also had to make efficient use of their time at work as part of the trial. Microsoft Japan. The standard meeting time was cut from 60 minutes to 30. They also capped attendance of those meetings to five employees, with no two employees from the same team.

Perpetual Guardian, a large New Zealand-based estate planning company, has also implemented a four day week. Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian, said the four-day week is “not just having a day off a week – it’s about delivering productivity, and meeting customer service standards, meeting personal and team business goals and objectives.”

Buffer has also trialled a four day work week. Like both Microsoft Japan and Perpetual Guardian they also saw some positive business outcomes from this. They found that staff reported higher levels of autonomy, lower stress levels and higher happiness levels. 

Software Delsol in Spain invested €400,000 in the four day week. This helped to hire more staff and purchase new technology to enable the transition. As a result of moving to a four day week absenteeism shrank by 28% with revenue growing at the same rate. Retention also improved, with none of the companies 189 employees leaving since the four day week went into effect.

The Mix, a London-based market research agency took an even bolder step with their experiment. Everyone works Monday to Thursday and everyone has Friday off. This resulted in a 57% increase in turnover, a bigger client list and 75% reduction in sickness.

With sustainability, climate change and the pandemic all posing huge challenges to businesses, the idea of a four day week cannot be written off as a “fad”. Especially when the data suggests it can provide measurable positives and cost savings. Businesses who have tried a four day work week saw improvements in their ability to attract and keep staff, better satisfaction levels, lower sickness levels and increased productivity.

But what are the barriers to implementation?

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Potential issues with a four day work week

A recent study by Henley University discovered some potential issues with a four day work week, especially in the service sector.

According to Henley’s survey, 82% of businesses said being available to customers is the biggest barrier to implementing a four-day week. For international companies this is a big problem. If you are based in a country with a four day week, but you have clients everywhere, how can you ensure you are always available? 

This means any company thinking about implementing the four day week needs to think seriously about business continuity. This may be less of a shift now than in the pre-pandemic days, as many companies have had to adopt new ways of working. However some technological and resource investment will be needed to make a four day week achievable. But productivity increases and cost savings in other areas could make a four day week more palatable to business leaders.

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Will a four day work week ever be viable?

Economist John Maynard Keynes spoke about a 15 hour work week way back in the 30’s. His theory was that increased efficiency and productivity gains should mean that workers will eventually work less. But despite huge productivity gains over decades most people still work over 40 hours per week. 

If Keynes can see a future where people work for 15 hours a week then surely a 32 hour, four day work week is possible. And Keynes didn’t even have the internet. While there are good arguments against a four day week, resistance to change should not be one of them. The way we work has never been static. The accepted five day week has only really been around since the 30’s and Ford pioneered the 40-hour workweek in 1926. 

The four day week may not be workable for everyone. Startups in particular may be affected differently compared to other businesses who have the benefit of economies of scale. But that does not mean experimentation is impossible. And it’s important to note that a four day week is not about doing less work, but being more productive.

Some of the productivity gains made by the companies who have implemented a four day work week may be transferable without moving to a four day week. If transitioning to a four day week is too disruptive. 

Companies could consider restricting meetings to 30 mins like Microsoft Japan. They could limit the number of attendees and schedule “meeting free” time at least once a week. Just those three small things can help an organization become more productive, if a four day week isn’t viable.

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