The pandemic turned the working world upside down more than many workplace experts could have predicted. Millions of workers left their office desks to work from home offices — or the dinner table — which certainly wasn’t an anticipated outcome for the workplace in 2020 — or 2021, for that matter. 

So, if the workplace can make a major shift toward remote work in the face of pandemic, it could also be possible to explore alternatives for the future of work in the form of the 4-day workweek

While the 4-day workweek might sound like a workplace utopia, a handful of countries and a selection of companies around the world have already trialed or implemented this alternative work style. So, what are the challenges and advantages of a 4-day workweek and how are institutions making it work in the face of our ever-evolving modern work culture.

What is the 4-day work week? 

The 4-day workweek is just what it sounds like: instead of working five eight-hour days each week, from Monday to Friday, employees work just four days. 

There are two 4-day workweek schedule examples that have been put into practice: In some cases, workers are still on the clock for a 40-hour workweek, but this is condensed into four ten-hour days. In other cases, a 4-day workweek consists of 32 hours, “where employees simply work one less day out of the week without making up the difference in hours.” 

Historical precedent of the 5-day work week

While the 4-day workweek might sound like an extreme departure from the five-day week that has been the norm for as long as most workers can remember, it actually wasn’t that long ago that employees were expected to work six days each week. According to The Atlantic, the earliest recorded use of the word weekend was in 1879, and referred to a break from work between Saturday evening and Monday morning. 

In 1908, employers in a New England mill began giving workers both Saturday and Sunday off, so that Jewish workers could observe the Saturday sabbath. Per the Atlantic: “The Great Depression cemented the two-day weekend into the economy, as shorter hours were considered a remedy to underemployment,” and we’ve been living with this five-day workweek for about 100 years. 

In fact, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that, by now, workers would be making such high incomes that they would only have to work 15-hour weeks. James Suzman, in an interview with Ezra Klein, explained, “He predicted that the combination between capital growth, improvements in productivity, and advances in technology, that nobody would be working more than 15 hours in a week.” 

According to Suzman, the reason we do not work 15-hour weeks is because workers are in the habit of working 40-hour (or more) workweeks and because our wants have grown over time, necessitating longer working hours to pay for them. 

Polls and experience have actually shown that those who work 40-hour workweeks aren’t necessarily producing more than they would in a 32-hour workweek, which is why countries and companies have begun to experiment with 4-day working weeks. 

For example, between 1998 and 2000, French lawmakers created rules that brought the French workweek down to 35 hours, meaning that any hours worked over 35 would then be entitled to overtime pay. Iceland trialled a 4-day workweek for many employees between 2015 and 2019, and it was so successful that 85% of employees now work a 4-day week.

4-day workweek example

In a key 4-day workweek example, a New Zealand company with 240 employees instituted a 4-day workweek in 2018, where employees were expected to work 32 hours and received the same pay. According to The New York Times, researchers found that employees were able to complete the same amount of work in four days that they were previously doing in five. Additionally, a quarter of employees found they were able to manage their work-life balance more effectively, and stress decreased while work satisfaction increased across all employees. 

With the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers around the world are paying renewed attention to flexible and alternative working styles because of how workplaces shifted to accommodate their employees in the face of the threat of contagious disease. Many employers and employees alike have realized that productivity is not necessarily tied to the office or to working between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm.

4-day workweek pros and cons

While Iceland and France have successfully cut down on workweek hours for employees, what are the pros and cons of implementing a 4-day workweek? 

Pros of the 4-day workweek

First, the benefits of a 4-day workweek, from increased productivity to a lower carbon footprint: 

  • Increased productivity: A 4-day workweek has been shown to maintain productivity levels when compared with a 5-day workweek. In Japan, Microsoft trialled a 4-day workweek throughout the summer of 2019 and found that productivity actually increased by 40% compared with the summer of 2018. 
  • More balanced gender equality: A 4-day workweek can also increase gender equality, because it allows women to stay on more equal footing with male employees. The World Economic Forum explained that women with children could certainly benefit from the 4-day workweek. “​​Women at the company who have children will be free to spend one day a week with them and, crucially, remain on the same footing as the rest of their colleagues.”
  • Increased employee engagement: Employee engagement has been shown to increase when a company undertakes a shift to a 4-day workweek. Because there is less time in the office so in order to complete their work, employees focus more than they would be able to during a 40-hour week.”  
  • Lower carbon footprint: Finally, if employees cut a full day of commuting from their schedule every week, the company’s overall carbon footprint is reduced. However, for employees who work remotely and therefore no longer commute, this benefit will be lessened.

Cons of the 4-day workweek

Now, the disadvantages of a 4-day workweek: 

  • Requires coverage for customer-facing roles: Companies need to be aware that customers might not be on board with a shift to a 4-day workweek, especially if you are providing a service that needs customer support. Companies have mitigated this problem, however, by ensuring there is a shift of employees available to cover customer queries throughout the traditional 5-day week. 
  • Requires an understanding of goals: When employers and employees undertake a 4-day work week, the goals need to be clear. The 4-day workweek isn’t simply a 5-day work week squeezed into four days, unless the schedule adjusts to include four 10-hour days. If employees are expected to cram more work into less time, stress levels will increase and productivity will decrease.  
  • Requires better planning: A 4-day work week requires more planning in order to successfully shift from a 5-day workweek. Meetings need to be scheduled across four days instead of five, and PTO requests will need to be managed accordingly. 
  • Requires cutting out workplace chat: Cutting the workweek by eight hours necessitates removing as much unfocused time as possible from an employee’s daily life, meaning there might be less time for chit chat at the office than there was previously.

Countries trying or considering a 4-day workweek

A handful of countries have brought in a 4-day work week already, clearly believing the pros outweigh the cons. As previously mentioned, Iceland had such a positive experience in trialing the 4-day work week that 85% of their workers now use this schedule. Spain announced in March 2021 that they would commit to three years of employees working a 32-hour workweek without having a cut in their compensation. The government has committed to making up the difference for companies that want to participate. 

In August 2021, U.S. House representative Mark Takano (D-CA) put forward the Thirty-Two Hour Work Week Bill in an effort to readjust American work-life balance. The bill would make all work over 32 hours for American employees subject to overtime pay. Meanwhile, in Ireland, Dublin City Council has backed a pilot program trial of the 4-day week. 

Companies trying a 4-day workweek

And it’s not just countries that are trialing four-day workweeks, there are some companies pioneering this schedule as well. Kickstarter recently announced that it would introduce a 4-day workweek for its employees beginning in 2022. Social media software company Buffer began experimenting with the 4-day workweek in 2020, and the New Zealand arm of Unilever has been trialing the 4-day workweek for its employees throughout 2021. 

Clearly, companies have taken on board one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic: that work and life need to be in balance in order to have productive, satisfied, and content employees. The 4-day workweek is another way companies could reach their business goals while helping employees thrive.