Who’s Afraid of the Four Day Work Week?

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If you’re a “full-time” employee, your work week is likely five days (if not more), and spans 40 hours (if not more). You might be paid by the hour, or you might be on salary, but you probably have two days “officially” off every week (although work might slide into those days) and they probably land on Saturday and Sunday.

Now imagine that your salary and benefits stayed the same, your responsibilities at work stayed the same, but everyone at your company only worked four days a week. Think about your current life, and the current make-up of your week, and what you usually have to smush into the weekend. What would you do with extra day off, every week of the year, for the rest of your working life? 

“I’d plan all the hobbies I am normally too exhausted to plan,” Danielle, who works in the insurance industry in Pennsylvania, told me. 

“I’d send the baby to daycare for half the day so I could volunteer, and then spend the rest of the day having adventures with him and the dogs,” Amelia, who works as an executive secretary, said. 

“I’d do more of what I do I do any time I have free time: build something, make something, organize something,” Maggie, an administrator in Virginia, explained. “Or go for a walk or have a good conversation with someone I love.” One woman said she’d finally “work on that cool article idea that’s a little outside my research area, so I shouldn’t spend my research days on it, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” Another person told me he’d “spend more time doing nothing.” 

Some thought they’d sleep, and sleep some more, and clean. But many also believed that after a catch-up period, the possibilities for that time would begin to expand: “Initially, I’d lay on the couch and recover,” said Rickie, who lives in a small Wisconsin town. “Over time, I would do more activities, and maybe even pursue a hobby. I’d love to have the energy to get into photography in a serious way, or to go out and discover new music, or just frivolously explore the larger area where I have lived for the last four years. Maybe I would have the energy to cook not only for myself, but for friends. I would love to have the time to connect with new people, and to meaningfully date. I need to be out in the world to meet people more organically. I want to feel connected.” 

Others struggle to even conceptualize what an extra day could feel like — or how they could prevent themselves from simply filling it with more work. “God I hope I wouldn’t work,” Gina, who works in operations at a media company, said. “I probably would, but hopefully something different from my main job? This is the toughest question, because it seems so unfathomable.” 

But what if it wasn’t? I first started talking to people about the four day work week before the pandemic, when a slew of high-profile experiments made it broadly imaginable for the first time. The specifics of implementation vary from company to company, but the basics are the same: you get paid the same amount as you did before, only you work less. And this isn’t some start-up, millennial-focused startup fringe benefit: pre-pandemic, one of the most public implementations of the four-day week is at Perpetual Guardian, a very staid, very old-fashioned company that manages trusts in New Zealand.

Some Perpetual Guardian workers took off Mondays, some Fridays, others loved a day off in the middle of the work week, but everyone took it, from the newest hires to the most senior managers. The effect was startling: at the end of a two-month trial, productivity had risen 20% — and “work-life” balance scores rose from 54% to 78%. After making the change permanent, overall revenue went up 6% — and profitability went up 12.5%.

Other experiments have yielded similarly astounding results: at Microsoft Japan, productivity went up 40%. A 2019 study of 250 British companies with four-day weeks found that companies had saved an estimated £92 million — and 62% of companies reported that employees took fewer sick and personal days. 

In April 2020, a month into the pandemic, the social media marketing company Buffer surveyed their employees about their most significant barriers to family or self-care and how the company could eliminate or ease those barriers. Twelve percent wanted more paid time off, 24 percent preferred reduced work hours, and 40 percent wanted to try a four-day workweek.

So they launched a four-week pilot program. “This 4‑day workweek period is about well-being, mental health, and placing us as humans and our families first,” Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, explained. “It’s about being able to pick a good time to go and do the groceries, now that it’s a significantly larger task. It’s about parents having more time with kids now that they’re having to take on their education. This isn’t about us trying to get the same productivity in fewer days.”

And yet productivity did go up: employees felt as productive as during the five-day schedule, if not more so, and employee stress levels improved. And this included developers and engineers: actual coding days went down (3.4 to 2.7 for product; 3.2 to 2.9 for mobile and infrastructure), but “productive impact,” a.k.a. how much they were actually getting done, increased significantly — and, in the case of infrastructure and mobile, doubled. Buffer opted to extend the trial another six months to see if it was sustainable; in February 2021 the company decided to officially adopt the schedule moving forward. 

And then there’s the very good news coming out of Iceland, which just released the results of a sprawling four year study of more than 2500 employees in different fields whose work weeks were reduced from 40 hours to 35-36. I strongly recommend reading the report in full, because it lays out why this scenario is not a case of “socialistic European nation does something that the United States never would.” But if you don’t have time for an 82-page report, the highlights are as follows: Iceland has a strong social safety net, with low income inequality, significant parental leave, and a robust universal health care. But the country lags far behind other Nordic countries in productivity — even though Icelanders work significantly more hours a week. For its survey of hours devoted to leisure and personal care, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked Iceland 34th out of 38 countries.

Icelanders’ work-life balance was shit — and for seemingly no reason. As the report puts it:

Worn down by long hours spent at work, the Icelandic workforce is often fatigued, which takes a toll on its productivity. In a vicious circle, this lower productivity ends up necessitating longer working days to ‘make up’ the lost output, lowering ‘per-hour productivity’ even further.

This is the principle at the heart of the four day week: working less can actually mean working better. That idea is particularly difficult for Americans, who fetishize long hours for many ideologically tangled reasons, to understand. It’s true in knowledge work, it’s true in medical fields, it’s true in construction. You’re just a better worker — a safer worker, a more creative worker, a more astute and alert worker — when you’re not exhausted. Employees understand this on a cellular level, even if they can’t always articulate it. In Iceland, that understanding was argued through the power of the union representing governmental employees, which began pushing for a reduced week in the 2010s.

In 2016, the government agreed to trials of a reduced week to 35-36 hours, starting first with employees in child protection services — who, as in many countries, experienced high levels of stress — and eventually expanded to include the Icelandic versions of daycare and preschool, maintenance crews, the mayor’s office, construction, and people providing in-home care. It moved from an original focus in Reykjavík to the whole of the country, including employees working irregular shift hours, like police officers. No one’s salary was reduced.

The results: no decline in services, but increases in worker happiness and well-being, and decreases in stress. Participants in the program reported finally having the time to have energy for hobbies, exercise, friends, and family. As one worker put it, “This [reduction in hours] shows increased respect for the individual. That we are not just machines that just work … all day. Then sleep and get back to work. [But that] we are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies.”

The success of the trial has led to widescale adoption across the country: when the study was published earlier this month, 86% of Iceland’s working population either had a reduced work week or the right to one.

That’s a stunning stat, but I was also struck by the word that the authors of the report used to describe participants’ shift in work-life balance: they felt they were achieving something close to harmony. It’s a better word, I think, than the phrase ‘work-life balance,’ which has become so hollowed out of meaning as to feel farcical. (When a company tells you they care about ‘work-life balance,’ it usually means that they talk about caring about work-life balance in order to rhetorically cover for the fact that those who succeed in the organization “require” very little of it).

Harmony doesn’t mean balance. It suggests each part of one’s life supporting and complementing the other: you’re a better person at work because of the person you’re able to be when you’re not working, and vice-versa. And that harmony is possible because you’re able to nourish the area of life that so many of us have allowed, or been forced, to let wither. Harmony is a beautiful thing. Once found, you can’t forget it. Other sounds and experiences feel meager and reedy in comparison. But it takes real work to achieve.

When the pandemic hit, I had just finished a draft of a full-length feature on the four day week. I’d followed Andrew Barnes, the head of Perpetual Guardian, as he preached the four day gospel to NYU business school grad students, at the annual meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and professors at Harvard Business School. My editors and I decided to table the feature: in those first frantic, terrifying weeks of the pandemic, when millions were losing their jobs, it felt ridiculous to think about working less. I felt helpless. Working, at least for those first months, felt grounding.

But that coping strategy could only endure for so long. For those who could still work, we worked and we worked and we worked and our worlds collapsed in on themselves and still, we worked. But something remarkable happened: we had a lot of time to think about why we were working. Some people made the decision to quit their jobs (or refused to take shitty ones); other people (myself included) joined in a veritable bloom of writing about the future and contours of work. For the first time in a long time, the status quo is up for deliberation. And it’s not just “why do we need to be in the office all the time,” it’s “why do we need to work the hours we work?”

There is nothing natural, after all, about the forty hour work week. Before electricity, the work week would revolve around workable day hours — or, for agrarian workers, the seasons. Electricity extended workable hours, and over the course of the 19th and 20th century, union and guild pushback eventually led to the institution of what we now think of as a the standard 40 hour week.

In 1937, for example, workers at Woolworth’s Department store went on strike for a 40 hour week, pictured above, sparking sit-downs in Woolworth’s across the nation. In 1952, New York sanitation workers alternated between weeks of six days, 48 hours, and seven days, 56 hours. In the picture below, they circle City Hall, advocating for the 40 hour work week — but also advocating, as their signs read, for their own health and “longer lives.” Again: there is nothing ‘natural’ about the length of our work week. It has been — and should continue to be — malleable to the needs and health of workers, which is to say, to the needs and health of society at large.

If your boss is afraid of the four day work week, what they’re really afraid of is change. Change in the rhythms of work, but also change in the long-held ethos that more work is always better. They’ll say they’re afraid of change in profits or productivity, despite evidence that neither decline. They might even say that they like the idea, but it would never work for them and their scenario. Oftentimes, that reticence is about public perception: working fewer hours is still equated with laziness in some way, or with some other vague notions of radicalism. Andrew Barnes told me, pre-pandemic, that he was aware of more than a dozen companies in America currently experimenting with the four- day week, but none, at least at that point, wanted to go public. (That’s changed somewhat since the pandemic hit, but the vast majority of companies publicly experimenting are small start-ups.)

During the reporting for that profile of Barnes and the four day week, I was barred from observing a meeting between him and executive MBA students: no one wanted to be recorded listening to his ideas. At a small meeting of people interested in the four-day week at Harvard Business School, the owner of a small business regaled the room with how it’s improved his life and his coworkers — but approached me afterwards, deeply worried that I’d name his business in print. There’s a largely unspoken shame that accumulates around the worker who, once they’ve found their “dream job,” still feels miserable. But there’s also stigma affixed to those who are curious about — or have found — a different way. 

When I first started researching this piece, my then-editor, whose job is sprawling and incredibly demanding, was enthusiastic. But when I suggested that we could easily implement the four- day work week for our own team, she shook her head and sighed. There’s so many meetings, she said. How would we publish things on Friday? What would other teams in our company think? My editor did what most managers and business owners and workers do when faced with a radical change in the way they do work: the solution feels like it requires so much change, and we’re already so tired, that we remain paralyzed in the status quo. It may make us feel like shit, but it’s the shit we know. 

The authors of the Iceland study repeatedly emphasized that it took time, commitment, and ingenuity for workplaces to figure out how to make the new schedules work. Many strategies were similar to those in Perpetual Guardian and Microsoft Japan: they figured out how to do concentrated work during the hours they were at work, either by reconsidering how they approached meetings, or cutting down on the sort of breaks that had been inserted into the long weeks to make them bearable.

It’s hard work, reconsidering the status quo, but it’s not impossible work. And it feels more and more necessary: as much as we attempt to trick our bodies into believing otherwise, we all have a breaking point — as does our economy, and our communities, and the environment at large. “All of the problems we’re facing as a society, we’re just sticking our heads in the sand and going ‘I’m not going to deal with it.’” Barnes told me. “What I’m arguing is that it’s actually less risky to try this than to do nothing.” 

As a society, we’ve repeatedly shifted our understanding of the “standard” work week. We’ve shifted — through union force, through governmental edict, through business leadership — when it’s made sense. When the work could be done in fewer hours, when employees demanded it for their own health, when societies realized the way things are doesn’t have to be the way things will be. And now is one of those times. As the managing director of Unilever New Zealand, one of dozens of companies embarking on a four day week, put it earlier this year, “We believe the old ways of working are outdated and no longer fit our purpose.”

For my next piece, I’m writing about predatory or exploitative grad school programs that function as money-makers for their institutions — MAs, MFAs, and various certificates that load students with massive amounts of student debt and limited (if any) career prospects. I tweeted a bit about it here, but if were recruited by or participated in one of these programs, I’d love to hear your story. Email me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com with “Grad school” in the subject line.

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