The 4 day work week is a relatively new trend sweeping organisations around the world.
The concept is simple.
People work for four days (instead of the traditional five) and maintain their full salary, with the expectation that they will maintain 100 per cent productivity.
At first glance, it seems a bit crazy.
How can you work less hours, but still be as productive as you were before?
To date in Australia, there have been several companies trialling the 4 day work week with success.
An article from the ABC discusses 10 of these companies that took part in a study to assess the effectiveness of the 4 day work week, with excellent results.
That is, they were able to maintain productivity while giving their employees an additional day off per week.
In this article, I’m not going to try to convince you to implement a 4 day work week (although it might be a good idea).
I’m going to look at some of the characteristics of the initiative that I believe make it work, and how that might translate into our everyday organisations.
The Potential Benefits of the 4 Day Work Week
The working week originally started as six days, but eventually reduced to five as the result of union advocacy.
Since then, the standard working week has reduced from 60 to 40 hours, and now some companies are on the cusp of a potential 4 day work week.
The benefits of the reduced working week are obvious for employees.
They work less and enjoy greater leisure and family time, hopefully resulting in reduced stress and greater overall wellbeing. They also may feel more productive, accomplishing more in less time.
For companies, the benefits have so far been improved morale and employee retention.
Of course, the 4 day work week does not necessarily suit all industries. At the moment, it appears to be more suited to “white collar” professions.
A hospital, for example, may have more difficulty implementing this because they are still required to provide care on all days of the week.
So What Learnings Can We Take From the 4 Day Work Week?
Instead of saying that everyone should have a reduced working week, I’m looking at the key characteristics that may help us in any work setting.
There are certain aspects of the 4 day work week that I believe are key to its success, which can potentially be used to shape how our teams operate.
1. It Adds a Clear Constraint
One of the significant aspects that I believe is powerful about the 4 day work week is that it adds a clear constraint to the working week.
You might say that the regular five day week already has a clear constraint, in that you only work five days.
However, I’d say the 4 day work week sharpens our focus.
I’ve noticed that in a standard five day week, many people work longer hours, and some work on the weekends to “catch up” or prepare for the next week.
But the reduced work week provides an extra free day – one that is specifically meant to be used for activities other than work.
I feel that this extra day is treated with more reverence than a standard weekend, because it is a key benefit that is provided to employees.
When you work for a five day week company, nobody tells you that the weekend is part of your benefits.
Therefore, the motivation to safeguard the extra non-working day is strong, and provides a clearer focus and reason to work more effectively.
Whereas in a standard five day week, I believe that the work can bleed into the weekend more easily with little resistance.
This clear constraint provides a stronger decision point where people can ask:
“Is this work worth doing on my extra free day?” or
“Is this the best way to do things if we’re going to be able to maintain our extra day off?” or perhaps
“Is this initiative one of the top priorities that we should focus on within our valuable time?”
Learn More: How to Set Clear Priorities For Your Team.
2. The 4 Day Work Week Focuses on Outcomes More Than Hours
In white-collar or “knowledge work” professions, many companies have become preoccupied with spending the right amount of hours.
Someone who stays late is often seen as more dedicated than someone who goes home on time.
However, staying late could actually be a sign of poor productivity, as opposed to a lack of dedication.
The 4 day work week is more outcome-focused.
Can we maintain our productivity while working less?
Instead of trying to fill the hours in the week, we focus on getting the work done effectively, because we don’t have time to waste.
It’s worth remembering Parkinson’s Law here:
“Work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.”
In other words, if we allow five days, it will take five days.
So when we reduce it down to four, we tend to find ways to complete it in four.
3. The 4 Day Work Week Makes Us Think Harder
If you impose a constraint on yourself like the 4 day work week, you’re going to have to come up with some ideas to make it work.
You don’t simply cut a day off your week and have everything work exactly the same way.
The reduced working week forces people to think creatively, to do things more effectively or efficiently. Or perhaps to work out how you can stop doing them altogether!
There is obviously a limit to what people can accomplish in a given timeframe.
For example, if we decided to cut our working week down to a single day, it would be more difficult to maintain the same productivity.
However, the 4 day work week also provides us with another nice question to ask:
“How much is enough?”
People can work more and more, taking on more clients and more jobs.
But at what point does that stop being worth it?
4. It Helps People to Set Boundaries
Another thing I’ve noticed about the 4 day work week is that it gives people permission.
Permission to take an extra day off.
This permission means that when faced with overwhelming workloads, they can feel more comfortable negotiating or pushing back.
When the organisation tells people they can work less, they are giving them permission to push back, to safeguard their week.
This levels the playing field to some degree. Some people are comfortable pushing back to safeguard their free time, while others may not be so outspoken.
The permission granted to take an extra day means that all employees are likely to feel safer to set that boundary because it applies to everybody in the organisation.
5. The 4 Day Work Week Promotes Less Time Wasting
Your attention tends to be sharper when you have limited time to accomplish something.
In my experience working in professional jobs, time wasting was common, and I did it too.
Long coffee breaks, talking to colleagues, spending time in long boring meetings that could potentially have been emails.
All of these things happen when we have ample time to complete our work (or if our workload is so large that we know we will never possibly complete everything).
A sharper focus means less time-wasting, especially when the prize is greater free time.
So How Can We Apply the 4 Day Work Week Concept?
I believe many of the important aspects of the 4 day work week can be applied to our regular companies too.
However, you may need to be more intentional about how you do it, because you don’t have the prize of the extra day off.
To start, we can set challenging (but not ridiculous) deadlines, and communicate them to key stakeholders. This helps to drive focus and create a clear decision-point about what is important.
Pay attention to the outcomes you need, rather than focused on hours spent. If the outcome is achieved, should it really matter if someone clocks off early? If this happens often, then it could be that the outcome could be made more challenging!
You can also set yourself an improvement target. Can you perform your processes 10 – 20% faster? Or improve quality without spending more time? Improvement projects also help to drive focus and provide a sense of purpose.
You could also have shorter meetings. One hour becomes 45 minutes, and 30 becomes 15 or 20. This sharpens focus and also helps create a small break between meetings… eliminating “back to backs”.
And lastly, give people permission to do good things for themselves, like take breaks, spend time reflecting and to negotiate their workloads. If you can make these actions a normal part of the way you work, then people will feel more comfortable engaging in them.
Even if you don’t have a 4 day work week, I think there is a lot we can take from the idea to help our team be more effective.
What do you think about the 4 day work week, and what do you do in your team to encourage more effective working?