“What we fear of doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

—– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

— Kahlil Gibran

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

— Thomas Jefferson

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.”

— Peter Drucker

“Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler.”

— Albert Einstein

“Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Some jobs are inherently clock-based. Airline pilot, bus driver, restaurant cook, store cashier – so many jobs require employees to be on the job for specified hours each week. Reducing hours to support a given level of sales means that more employees are needed to fill the required open-for-business hours. No reduction in pay means that profits go down unless the business finds some way to offset the added costs.

Many, and perhaps most, jobs are at least somewhat time-flexible. This means that a set of tasks must be completed but the manner in which they are done is up to the employee. Hustlers will make short work of the tasks while the majority will allow tasks to fill most or all of the workday. Productivity is the issue here.

Today, while so many businesses are greatly restructuring their workplaces and working arrangements, the “four-day” workweek – whatever this means in practice – is getting some serious consideration.

Flavors of “four-day” weeks seem to include:

  1. Four days of 10 hours each (compressed workweek)
  2. Four 8-hour days that require offsetting productivity increases
  3. Four 8-hour days that require additional staff and expense
  4. Flex-days that only require a specified amount of work to be done

Being-there jobs

Jobs like restaurant work simply require employees to be available for specific periods each workday. Presence is what counts, even if employees are essentially idle or doing busy-work for perhaps half of most days. For these jobs, a shorter workweek means additional staffing and expense. Maybe the business can increase prices enough to compensate but this is not common.

Teaching is a type of being-there job in that it requires employee presence for specified hours each workday. Fewer work hours at the same full pay means higher school costs and higher taxes to pay for them. Feasibility depends on the ability to raise taxes unless the school is able to eliminate an offsetting number of less-essential jobs or the teaching process itself can be shortened so as to require fewer teachers.

Most businesses have a mixture of being-there and time-flexible jobs. For example, many management jobs are time-flexible with no fixed hours but the positions typically require full-time visible presence. In this case, the actual workdays can be nearly endless. Most managers and executives work far more than 40 hours a week and five days a week.

Time-flexible jobs

Sales work driven by quotas can be highly time-flexible for top producers. Time doesn’t matter much so long as quotas are met. From my own few years in field sales, there was great incentive to achieve what was required in the least possible amount of time. What I did with the freed-up time was up to me. A serious hustle or some good luck might free up half a week for enjoyable non-work pursuits.

Time-flexible jobs require output regardless of time needed to generate the output. Research jobs can be like this. Writing is also a common job without time requirements. Engineering project jobs, especially in construction as I did for many years, typically demand “all hours required to get the project done”. This often involved 15-20-hour work days – often with 7-day weeks. Yuck.

Productivity-flexible jobs

Some kinds of jobs are highly flexible in terms of time requirements and involve creative output. Creative output is notoriously hard to schedule. You can spend endless hours without much output or you can deliver a great whatever with just a few highly-productive hours.

Consulting is often one such activity. You do a lot of talking to people and then thinking about what they told you and didn’t tell you. How much you do depends mostly on your budget and conscientiousness. The best and most valuable insights can come while you are hiking, just looking out a window, or even talking to your cat. Four-day work weeks are meaningless for most of us who follow this largely enjoyable and challenging persuasion.

Factory jobs

“Factory” here is used in the broadest sense of working in a highly-structured multi-party process that generates cars, products picked for shipment, and even surgical operations. How much you get done depends on your energy, smarts, and abilities. You typically work fixed hours and get as much done as you can, as measured by what your coworkers are doing.

Four-day work weeks here typically mean either adding more employees or finding ways to increase each person’s productivity enough to offset the cost of more people. The former is rarely available but the productivity angle can be huge. Huge – but only if you hire creative people and provide strong incentives.

Work-life balance

These days, a focus on workdays is often unworkably myopic. Workers for some mysterious reason seem to insist on having a kind of life along with the work that pays the life-generated bills. Too often, life attempts to take priority.

A compressed workweek of four 10-hour days may simply be impossible for people who have to juggle children’s schooling and medical appointments and other such life activities. These people may however be enthusiastic over a 4-day 32-hour workweek at no reduction in pay since that freed-up day can do wonders for work-life balances. How to pay for the resulting need for additional workers is rarely their concern.

The place that the reduced-workweek-same-pay can work is where the work is productivity-flexible. If workers can generate their required outputs of whatever in the shorter time frame, then you have a win-win situation. This means that the carrot of a shorter workweek can be used to motivate development of creative ways to improve productivity.

Work-life balance can be a big winner here.

Flex-work jobs

Many types of jobs are output-based rather than time-based. Sales is probably the most common example. If a salesperson has only to meet or (if lucky) exceed their current targets, then how much time they spend in doing so is largely irrelevant. I once worked with a top software sales guy who beat everyone else in his company with just one or two big sales a month. I recall that he golfed and leisure-travelled for the greater part of each month.

If your business is structured in a way that profitability requirements can be met by certain employees achieving goals of whatever they are doing, then giving them great flexibility in work hours can do wonders for morale.

You do need to recruit and retain top people to make this work in general but it can be a great way to attract the best producers.

As website ZeroHedge.com notes, “The Four Day Work Week Is Catching On”:

“As Covid has likely forever changed the work landscape for many companies, more and more institutions are even starting to experiment with a four day work week. “

“Awin Chief Executive Officer Adam Ross, who made the change at his company, allowing his workers to leave early on Fridays, recently told Bloomberg: “We firmly believe that happy, engaged, and well-balanced employees produce much better work. They find ways to work smarter, and they’re just as productive.””

“And its not just Awin. It’s a trend that is growing much larger around the globe. For example, according to ZipRecruiter, postings that have mentioned a four day work week have tripled over the last three years, to 62 per 10,000 postings. Major companies like Unilever are even experimenting with the four day work week. Spain’s government is looking into whether to subsidize the idea and it is even catching on in Japan. “

“Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, said:  “The four-day week is picking up momentum. For the large majority of firms, reducing working hours is an entirely realistic goal.””

Making four-day workweeks work is a bit tricky however

Forbes observes that several countries are ahead of the US in offering four-day workweeks but that considerable flexibility seems to be required in most cases:

“Barnes thinks we’re at an inflection point, though he concedes Europe, Australia and New Zealand are ahead of America in offering four-day workweeks. “Hundreds of companies in the UK are moving to a four-day week or are already doing it, including large organizations,” he said.”

“Truth is, employers offering four-day workweeks do so in very different ways. Sometimes, everyone gets off the same day each week. Sometimes, workers have to put in 10-hour days during their four weekdays on the job, though what’s known as a ‘compressed workweek.’”

Driving the four-day workweek seems to be a variable combination of recruiting attractiveness, productivity enhancement, and elimination of less-essential jobs. Less-time-same-pay seems to be a common feature. This can be very hard to make work in many situations.

In recent years, most businesses have worked diligently on trimming out fat and low-priority jobs. There may not be a lot of opportunity left here. Productivity may in fact be the best and highest-potential target left.

Targeting productivity gains through flex-work

Online recruiter FlexJobs had some interesting data on flex-work in its 2019 Annual Survey:

“Why People Seek Flexible Work Options: Since 2013 when we first conducted this survey, we’ve been asking people to tell us the factors that make them want a job with flexibility. The four options below have always been the top four reported reasons people seek flexible work.”

> Work-life balance (75%)
> Family (45%)
> Time savings (42%)
> Commute stress (41%)”

“There may be a connection between time savings and commute stress because 72% of survey respondents said their longest daily commute was one hour or more. Other high-ranking factors for seeking flexible work options included:”

> Avoiding office politics and distractions (33%)
> Travel (29%)
> Cost savings (25%)”

These findings suggest that the four-day workweek and flex-work options are closely related in practice. For employees with time-flexible jobs, the primary goal is to gain greater control over their individual work time via “flex-work”. A four-day (same pay) flex-work arrangement may well help to motivate and deliver solid productivity improvements. Many will figure out how to do five days worth of work in four days.

Perhaps also, tying a four-day workweek to demonstrated productivity gains via flex-work could be a real game-changer. Human resources association SHRM made the four-day workweek and flex-work connections explicit in its article “The Phenomenon of the Four-Day Workweek”:

Four-day workweek and flex-work concepts appear closely related

SHRM provides some data on the number of four-day workweek implementations and the impact of this arrangement on employee satisfaction and productivity. But 39% of US workers were found not to be in favor of a four-day workweek for a variety of reasons.

Some basic statistics on four-day workweeks
Source: SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management)

Bottom line:

The four-day workweek is getting a lot of interest these days as work schedules are hugely disrupted and changed by COVID-related adjustments but implementing it presents an impressive range of problems. Potential appears greatest where flex-work and productivity gains are the target – so that the arrangements effectively pay for themselves, or better.

Karen Foster as reported in Inverse.com summarizes the four-day workweek situation quite nicely:

“NOT A COMPRESSED SCHEDULE — A four-day workweek must not be confused with a compressed schedule that has workers squeeze 37.5 to 40 hours of work into four days instead of five. For reasons that should be clearer below, that won’t help us now.”

“A true four-day workweek entails full-timers clocking about 30 hours instead of 40. There are many reasons why this is appealing today: families are struggling to cover child care in the absence of daycares and schools; workplaces are trying to reduce the number of employees congregating in offices each day, and millions of people have lost their jobs.”

“A shorter workweek could allow parents to cobble together child care, allow workplaces to stagger attendance, and, theoretically, allow the available work to be divided among more people who need employment.”

“The most progressive shorter workweek entails no salary reductions. This sounds crazy, but it rests on peer-reviewed research into shorter work weeks, which finds workers can be as productive in 30 hours as they are in 40, because they waste less time and are better-rested.”

“Shorter workweeks reduce the number of sick days taken, and on their extra day off, employees don’t use the office’s toilet paper or utilities, reducing their employer’s costs. Therefore, while it is counter-intuitive, it’s possible for people to work less at the same salary while improving their employer’s bottom line. That people might have to spend more of their own money on toilet paper is a concession most workers would probably accept.”

“The same body of research also has more predictable findings: people like working less.”

Newsletter publisher Digiday reminds us that the four-day workweek is far from a new concept: “Coronavirus pandemic has more employers experimenting with four-day work week”:

“The four-day work week is not a new concept. For years, companies like Unilever, Deloitte and KPMG have employed it with favorable results. As The Guardian reported, after Microsoft experimented with the idea in Japan, it resulted in better efficiency, happier workers and 40% greater productivity.”

“But as the pandemic has upended anything resembling a normal work life and opened the door toward more experimentation with routines, more employers have been trying it out. A forthcoming book from the academic publisher Polity, called “The Case for a Four-Day Work Week,” argues for it to become the norm versus the exception.”

““In response to the pandemic, we became a fully remote company. That forced us to change our metric of productivity,” said Daniel Cooper, managing director of the London-based technology services firm Lolly, which works with companies like Citi and Slack and began converting to a four-day arrangement late last year.”

“As with Awin, the inspiration, he noted, was a desire for work-life balance among its workforce. Among the advantages have been increased productivity, happier and more motivated employees, and greater interest in the company among top talent.””

Publisher Talent Quarterly has a very different take on the four-day workweek: “Why the 4-day workweek is a terrible idea”:

“Decades of research show flexibility is the number-one benefit that employees desire. They want time to do what they want to do, when they want to do it. They don’t want their employer telling them they have to work a 4-day week or a 7-day week. They want clear goals, an opportunity to grow, and the chance to work hard to get great results. All of that’s possible without resorting to a new management fad.”

“While the 4-day workweek is the management darling du jour, you can take comfort in knowing it will soon die and be replaced by the next unproven, self-congratulatory fad. Can I interest you in the 3-day workweek?”

“Most of the media’s attention has focused on a 400-person New Zealand company that implemented a 4-day, 30-hour workweek (and now promotes the concept with a new book) and an experiment at IBM Japan where employees were given Fridays off for one month. Uniqlo and Shake Shack have also been lauded for their respective 4-day and 32-hour workweeks. “

“In true management fad fashion, the shift to a 4-day workweek is reported to have worked perfectly at each company. Hey, imagine that! Employees self-reported being more engaged, while their managers reported that employees’ work output didn’t drop an ounce. IBM even mentioned the added benefit of using less printer paper!”