Is the four-day week really a good idea?

Tom Gibby explores the benefits and drawbacks of working shorter hours

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In 1926 the Ford motoring company introduced the revolutionary five-day working week; before then it was standard practice to work six days a week with Sundays off. Henry Ford believed working five days for the same pay would increase worker productivity, as employees would put more effort into their shorter working hours. Ford was proven to be correct in his theory, and the five-day week was born.

As we approach the 100-year anniversary of the five-day working week, there has been an uptick in businesses rolling out the four-day working week to their employees; even lawmakers in California are proposing 32-hour contracts for private sector companies with more than 500 employees. Every month more and more organisations are trialling the ‘inevitable’ four-day working week. 

A study by Qualtrics found that 90 per cent of 1,000 employees would support their employer in implementing a four-day week, which could, in turn, make them 86 per cent more loyal to their employer. Furthermore, 83 per cent thought the four-day week could help their employer attract new talent.

One of the many ripple effects of the pandemic is the increased focus on work-life balance, and being able to spend as much time as possible at home is a trend that has continued post-lockdown. More so than ever before, people don’t want their work to take precedence over their personal life and are actively looking for roles that can accommodate that balance. As a result, companies that can’t provide a healthy equilibrium are losing their talent in droves. 

Employers are grappling to hold on to their workforce and, in the wake of this mass realisation, the four-day working week has been viewed as the ultimate benefit to satisfy employees looking to spend more time at home, without a loss in income. 

Is it really the best option?

On the surface the four-day week sounds like the ideal solution, promising increased productivity four days per week in exchange for more free time at home. But the problem with a one-size-fits-all solution is that it never really fits all. Some employers may want their staff to work longer days to make up for their extra day off, or for others the pressure of hitting the same deadlines with four fewer days a month to do the work could become such a stresser that the extra day off may feel more like one of recuperation than rest.

The Find Your Flex Group on LinkedIn found that the UK working population would actually prefer a move to outcome-based working, rather than working non-standardised hours like a four-day week. This is where I believe the future of work lies. We need to stop thinking of work as something where you sit at a desk for the same set hours every day, tethered to a computer, have a break at lunch and then head straight back to your office until 5pm on the dot. I believe each employee should be able to work in a way that suits them and isn’t dictated to by management. If as an employer your employees are in meetings when they need to be, they hit their targets and they bring talent and passion to the table, do we really need to clockwatch them to find out whether they finish an hour early every now and then or have a long lunch to hit the gym?

I am also a big believer in asynchronous working, and while this is not something that works for everyone or every role, letting employees set their own schedule and not expecting them to be available at set times creates an independent and self-sufficient workforce that works to their best ability during the time that suits them. It’s time to lean-in and see the benefits of night owls and early morning risers. If someone wants to start work at 5am so they can finish at 1pm, why not? The same goes for night owls who prefer to work late rather than early. This means your business is a hub of activity almost 24/7 and you get the most out of your employees during times where they are at their most driven and active, not an arbitrary time that is set without question.

Sharon O’Dea, future of work expert and co-founder of Lithos Partners, believes a more flexible approach to hours is needed. “While a re-examination of the traditional five-day, nine-to-five work week is very welcome, I believe that we need to be bolder and more flexible,” she says.

“By switching to more outcomes-based approaches we can enable people to work when it's best to meet business needs and manage their work-life balance. But it also allows us to offer more part-time roles, which could help recruit or retain talent in a workforce that’s ageing and juggling caring responsibilities.”

There is never going to be one singular model that works for everyone and I think that is the main thing employers need to ask: ‘What working pattern will help you to be your most productive and content?’ I believe that by simply asking that question, you’ll get more from that employee than anyone else ever has before. 

So, is the answer a four-day week? No. Is it a five-day week? No. The answer is never, and will never be, that black or white. Instead, we need to redefine what being ‘at work’ means and to move from an hours or time-based measure of value, to one focused much more on output and trust. It’ll be better for your business and a much better way to work for your staff too. 

Tom Gibby is co-founder of The Bot Platform