Are We Ready for a 4-Day Workweek?

Have any three-day weekends planned this summer? Don’t feel guilty—according to an experiment by a New Zealand company, there’s a good chance you’ll actually be more productive that week.

The company in question, a financial firm with 240 employees, let its staff work just four days a week last spring. It found that the switch increased engagement, lowered overhead, and boosted individual productivity. Those findings have led many American business experts to scratch their heads and ask, “why not here?”

So what do the workers on these schedules think? We asked professionals that were on a four-day schedule, full-time or most of the time, for their two cents. Some of the individuals we interviewed asked us to withhold their names, suggesting there’s still a stigma against voicing support for a shorter workweek. As we learned, maybe there shouldn’t be.

Performance Tied to Merit, Not Optics

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the now clichéd adage, “work smart, not hard.” Today’s most successful companies purport to be driven by metrics and tangible results, not whether employees are burning the midnight oil or physically in the workplace. After all, when’s the last time someone handed out a perfect attendance award at the office? That’s partly why telecommuting has become so popular.

Sarah, a director at a public affairs firm, echoed that sentiment. “Companies shouldn’t pay their staff based on length of the workweek, but rather on meeting the expectations of the job while maintaining high quality. So I don’t see why we can’t have four-day workweeks as long as the work is getting done and done well,” she said.  

Many of the professionals we spoke to questioned whether employees who worked five versus four days actually accomplished more. Mary, a manager at a major online retailer, had her doubts. “From my past experience, half the time you see people goofing around and relaxing by Fridays,” she said. “It’s pretty much an unspoken part of the weekend already.”

Mary only occasionally works four days a week. But she saw an immediate improvement in both her productivity and her colleagues’ when switching to the shorter workweek. “People still know to get their work done, but they’re grinding harder Monday through Thursday, so they can take a much-deserved break by Friday,” she said.

Improved Work-Life Balance

Of all the potential benefits of switching to a shorter workweek, few came up as often as improved work-life balance. Parents were especially thankful for the arrangement.

Nancy, a working mother in the publishing industry, found switching to a four-day workweek was a liberating experience. “Being able to have a weekday off to be a mom during my kids' school day made all the difference. It allowed me to take care of my family and to be a part of their lives, not just a weekend mom with endless chores taking away precious family time,” she explained.

That additional time wasn’t just a net positive for Nancy. The quality of her work increased and her employer took notice. She was recently rewarded with a major promotion. “The four-day week model was successful for me. I was able to grow in my career and my children grew up healthy and strong-minded,” she said.

Others made the same correlation between work-life balance and the quality of their work. Erica, an acupuncturist, switched to a four-day schedule and hasn’t looked back since. She finds that it allows her to be fully present and not be tempted to “home” from work.

“I’m less stressed because I have time outside of work to get things done. When I’m at work I’m much more focused on work and not stressing about the little stuff from home,” she said. The switch also helped Erica tap into her entrepreneurial spirit. She started dog walking on Fridays, giving her an extra source of income and the ability to afford an upcoming vacation.

Overcoming the Stigma

Every individual we spoke to hoped that more companies would consider switching to a shorter workweek. Some proposed that adopting summer Fridays might be a way for companies to trial the program. Others suggested “just going for it,” like the trailblazing New Zealand firm did last spring.

The first challenge might be getting employees to speak frankly about their schedules without feeling judged. Less than half of the individuals we interviewed allowed us to use their names, and no men were willing to be quoted. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with the country’s well-documented “working problem.” On average, Americans log over 250 more hours per year than their European counterparts. The employees themselves are partly responsible for that gap, as an estimated 600 million vacation days get left on the table each year. There are even popular songs celebrating the “Americanness” of an honest forty-hour living.

Changing those attitudes won’t be easy. As the natural bridge between the interests of employees and the business, HR professionals are uniquely positioned to lead the charge. First steps might include experimenting with other aspects of workplace flexibility, like telecommuting. With companies already willing to experiment with ideas like unlimited vacation and paid sabbatical, is the four-day workweek really such a stretch?

The employees we spoke to didn’t think so. Mary, the retail manager from earlier, appealed directly to HR teams who might be on the fence.  “Imagine the productivity boost you’d see from happy employees who have the extra day given back to them,” she said. “The opportunity is there."

Will that appeal resonate? For a profession known for wanting to redefine how the world works, the four-day week might just be HR’s most ambitious project yet.

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