More companies and countries have been experimenting with the 4-day work week for the last few years. But no one thought it would really stick – until the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.

As employers and employees quickly transitioned from on-premise to remote work, we all became subjects in an experiment to redefine productivity in the modern workplace. Now, in 2021, companies that previously thought remote work would be too difficult to implement are permanently embracing the virtual office and all its benefits.

Greater schedule flexibility, AI-powered technology, and innovate project management software mean remote employees can accomplish the same amount of work in less time. So does this mean we can finally push for a shorter work week?

Microsoft, Buffer, and Unilever say yes, encouraging others to get in on the action too. So we’ll break down the 4-day work week concept and hash out all the pros and cons in this article.

What is the 4-day work week?

The 4-day work week is an arrangement where employees only work four days during the weekday instead of the typical five Monday through Friday.  There are two leading approaches to the 4-day schedule:

  • 10-hour shifts, 4 days/week, in which employees work longer hours when they’re clocked in, but fewer days. In this compressed model, they’ll still work 40 hours during the week.
  • 8-hour shifts, 4 days/week, which allows employees to keep their standard 8-hour shifts and work fewer days. Employees will only physically work 32 hours during the week, but they’ll get paid as if they worked a regular 40 hours. 

Before you get too excited about 3-day weekends forever, it’s important to note that some companies allow their employees to choose their extra day off, but others have rules against it being Monday or Friday. All agree on employees having three days off per week, regardless of rules on how it’s split.

History of the 5-day work week 

The concept of a “work week” has been evolving since BC times. But we can thank Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, for standardizing the 5-day work week in The United States. During the 1920s, Ford reduced his factory workers’ six 8-hour days to just five to create the 40-hour, 5-day work week.

Ford believed his employees would put more effort into their work if they were given more leisure and family time without a reduction in pay. He also knew if they had more time off, they could travel and shop more (and need a car to do those!).

“It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” – Henry Ford

His pioneering advancements in automation meant that his workforce could sweat fewer hours and increase his bottom line. Soon, other manufacturers followed suit to put the 5-day work week into practice, and here we are nearly 100 years later.

The 4-day workweek and the fourth Industrial Revolution 

Industrial revolutions occur when leaps in technology improve production and make people’s lives easier. The advancements in each era of our history shape society and propel us to the next level of thinking, working, and living. When it comes to the four industrial revolutions:

  • The First (1765) introduced mechanization, coal energy, steam engines, and railroads.
  • The Second (1870) brought electricity, gas, and oil to the stage, and advancements like the telephone and automobile.
  • The Third (1969) harnessed the power of nuclear energy and paved the way for the first computers, robotics, and electronics.
  • The Fourth (2000) shifted energy to renewable sources and began the explosion of digital technology, The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence (AI), and more.

Each time companies take advantage of new technology, employees stress less. Just like Henry Ford’s automation, AI and cloud-based technology have allowed the average worker to accomplish more in less time. So doesn’t that earn them extra time off?

Why is the 4-day work week trending in 2021?

Digital advancements have been shaping the workforce for the last 20 years. But the unexpected shift to remote work due to COVID-19 opened the world’s eyes to the fact that workplace change can happen successfully and quickly given the right tools.

As companies get used to more employees working from home full or part-time, it gives HR teams the opportunity to rethink the “typical” work schedule. Is it really vital to a company’s success or an archaic relic of the past?

Spain leads the way for a 4-day work week

The Spanish government is directly responsible for the 4-day work week trending in 2021. When COVID-19 lockdowns crippled the economy, Spain approved a pilot project to subsidize corporate transitions to the 4-day work week model, hoping to boost economic spending. 

Companies with six to 250,000 employees were encouraged to schedule workers for 32-hour-weeks without reducing their full-time pay for three years. The government earmarked $60 million to help offset employers’ costs of doing so. This became the first nationwide trial of the 4-day work week, and two Spanish companies followed the government’s lead to great success.

Advantage Consultores, an international headhunting and consulting firm, noticed “only advantages.” Employee motivation, self-determination, engagement, autonomy, and productivity skyrocketed without a decrease in work quality. CEO and founder Sylvia Taudien credited the wins to agile remote tools for collaboration and says “salary is no longer measured by hours, but by productivity.”

Delsol, a software firm, saw a 28% decrease in employee absenteeism, increased revenue, and both higher employee and customer satisfaction rates. None of the company’s 189 employees have left since the plan went into effect. Delsol even spent 400k euros investing in new remote technology and hiring extra employees to cover schedule gaps.

But they’re not the only ones.

Case Studies: 5 companies embracing the 4-day work week

This handful of global companies may be inspiring hundreds of others to experiment with the 4-day week model in the future:

1. Perpetual Guardian (New Zealand)

Arguably one of the first companies to go 4-day, the trust, estate, and financial planning firm transitioned its 240+ employees back in 2018. The trial was monitored by the University of Auckland Business School and Auckland University of Technology and deemed a “resounding success.” Researchers noticed increased productivity, a 20% boost in customer engagement levels, and a 26% improvement in work-life balance.

Employees worked one less day and earned the same amount of pay. Founder and CEO Andrew Barnes is convinced companies should pay for labor based on output, not days in the office. He’s since gone on to write The 4 Day Work Week and co-founded the 4 Day Week nonprofit.

2. Microsoft (Japan)

The Japanese culture of overworking is no secret. In fact, the Japanese can be so dedicated to their work, they actually have a word for “death by overworking” (karoshi).

In an effort to fight back against overworking, Microsoft Japan tried a 4-day work week during the summer of 2019. The tech giant gave their 2,300 employees paid leave on Fridays, and noticed productivity jumped 40%Shutting down on Fridays also resulted in a 23% decrease in electricity costs and 59% fewer printed pages.

3. Shake Shack (US)

When the American-based burger and shake company initiated a 4-day work week for store managers, it noticed a spike in recruitment – especially among women who enjoyed the extra day off and spending less on child care costs. The company has expanded its trial to a third of its 164 US stores.

4. Buffer (US)

Joel Gascoigne, CEO and co-founder of social media manager Buffer, gave their 89-person team a 4-day work week at full pay for one month during April 2020. The company noticed an improvement in employee happiness and stress without a dip in productivity, so it opted for a 6-month trial to validate whether it would be sustainable.

Turns out, it was. So Buffer is continuing 4-day work weeks for the foreseeable future. Their data shows higher levels of employee output, individual autonomy, and general work happiness (on top of much lower stress levels). 

5. Unilever (New Zealand)

The British consumer goods company began a year-long 4-day work week trial in New Zealand during 2020. Employees are working four days while receiving compensation for five while the University of Technology in Australia tracks their progress. The company will then decide whether to roll out this model to its 150k global employees in the future.

Pros and cons of the 4-day work week

Most companies experimenting with the 4-day work week find more upsides than downsides, making it a no-brainer to implement going forward. Studies show:

Pro: Less stress and burnout; better work-life balance

The weekend should be a time to relax and spend with loved ones, but it’s usually packed with to-dos, errands, and bracing oneself for the work week ahead. An extra day off may give employees the time they need to unwind and re-center. 

Adding another day off can also be helpful for scheduling doctor appointments (instead of taking time away from work during the week) and providing care for children and family members. Just 54% of Perpetual Guardian employees said they could effectively balance their work and home life when they clocked in 5-day weeks. However, that number jumped to 78% when they started working 4-day weeks.

Pro: Higher productivity and motivation

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “happy employees who work shorter workweeks are more productive than stressed employees who work overtime.” In fact, some of the most productive countries in the world have employees who only work an average of 27 hours per week. Companies who adopted 4-day workweeks have seen anywhere from a 20-40% increase in productivity.

The old Parkinson’s Law adage says “work expands to fill the time allotted.” Employees will find ways to work smarter and accomplish everything they need in less time when they get another day off. A shorter work week encourages better time management. Besides, with advancements in remote technology and smoother automation, tasks can get completed quicker and more efficiently.

Con: Longer hours may increase work-related stress

Slashing a work day from the week may cause employees to feel more stress and pressure to accomplish their work in a shorter period of time. Some may decide to work even longer hours during the week to make up for the extra day off.

A culture of trust is mandatory for employees to get their work done without wasting time on the clock (that they no longer have). Employee satisfaction scores plummeted in companies where employees felt micromanaged or as if they weren’t allowed any free time during the work day.

You can revolutionize the way your team works by giving them the freedom to manage their projects their way. Your design team might love Kanban, and your engineering team might love Gantt, for example. So give them the autonomy to manage projects in the way they work best, and this may lower their stress while increasing output.

Pro tip: With 6 different project layouts to choose from, Hive is a flexible project management tool that does just that — it lets each teach member work their best way. Try Hive free for 14 days here

Pro: Higher employee retention and recruitment

Companies offering a 4-day work week have an edge when it comes to retaining and attracting employees. Flexible schedules and perks like unlimited vacation days are seen as especially desirable among millennial and Gen Z workers. In fact, Job site ZipRecruiter says the number of postings mentioning a 4-day work week has “tripled” in the past three years, a trend that’s clearly gaining traction among job seekers.

4 day work week zip recruiter

Source: Four-day work week gains popularity, Bloomberg Businessweek

When startups and small companies can’t offer Silicon Valley-esque employee perks, they can at least provide an extra day off in the name of mental health and wellness.

Pro: Greater gender equality

Research from the UK on gender inequality shows nearly 2 million people are currently unemployed because they have childcare responsibilities – and 89% are women. Another European study highlights that women spend an average of 62 hours per week on childcare and 23 hours on housework; men spend 36 and 15 hours, respectively, on those activities.

If parents could not only receive an extra day off during the week, but stagger them with a partner, the family unit could have two working providers, reduce two days of childcare expenses, divide tasks more equally, and spend more time together.

Pro: Employers actually save money

Besides the reduced energy costs of closing the office one extra day per week, employers will also decrease the money lost on absenteeism and presenteeism (when employees are present yet too stressed to be productive).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that productivity losses linked to absenteeism cost employers $225.8 billion annually in the US, or $1,685 per employee.

So though it may seem like employers will lose money paying for their employees to receive an extra day off, a UK study revealed that companies implementing a 4-day work week would actually save a combined $129 billion/year.

Pro: Environmental benefits

A 4-day work week may have a positive impact on the fight against climate change. Employees could help reduce carbon emissions and ease traffic congestion when they commute one less day per week. Employers could also use less power at the office and print fewer pages, as Microsoft Japan noticed.

Con: Customer support could suffer

Certain departments may need special workarounds to accommodate a 4-day work week. Customer support teams, for example, should be available 24/7. So it’s probably unwise to give everyone in this department the same days off.

AI-enabled chatbots and virtual phone systems allow CS teams to communicate on every channel customers use, even when employees work from home. Buffer’s Customer Advocates work rotating 4-day work week schedules: if they have Wednesday off during one week, they’ll have Friday off the next (and vice versa). 

So investing in the right technology could turn this downside into a significant upside for your staff and customer base.

So Is The 4-Day work week the way of the future?

Íñigo Errejón, a member of the Spanish parliament in favor of 4-day work weeks, says: “How we work now is… not biologically or socially sustainable. [Our] economies can’t compete with China to work more hours for less money. We should compete to work in better conditions.”

We’ve seen the workplace evolve to the virtual space thanks to COVID-19. As more employers and employees embrace remote work, they’ve relied on virtual project management tools, VoIP business phones, and cloud-based software to collaborate, connect with customers, and boost productivity to new heights. 

Now it’s time for another revolution. And companies with the right technology and workplace culture can champion the future of the 4-day work week to the benefit of their employees, customers, and the environment. It’s a win-win-win.

This is a guest post by Devin Pickell, a Growth Marketer at Nextiva. Devin combines his skills in content marketing, SEO, data analysis, and marketing strategy to meet audiences at the right moment in their journey. He has helped scale SaaS brands like G2 and Sphere Software, and contributed to G2’s traffic growth of more than 1 million visitors per month.