The evidence is mounting: Working a 4 day week might just turn you into a productivity powerhouse (and—bonus!—set you up with a 3 day weekend). More days to sleep in? Now that’s something we can get on board with.
But before you leap up from your desk and announce to your boss that you’ll be taking Fridays off ad infinitum, let’s go a bit deeper into what the 4 day week is all about. Who’s doing it? How well is it working? And what do you need to do to make it a success?
The 4 Day Week in Action
The 4 day week has been getting attention in news headlines for a while now, but seemingly more than ever in 2018. There are new cases popping up. And, at the same time, demand for shorter work weeks is on the rise. Here are some examples.
In the UK
The UK’s Trade Union Council officially recommended a 4 day work week as part of its 2018 report. Why? Because in a survey of workers, the 4 day week was by far the most popular option (way ahead of even a 3 day week, showing it’s not just a preference for working as little as humanly possible).
Ok, so there’s evidence that the 4 day week sounds pretty awesome to a lot of people. But has anyone actually adopted it?
Glasgow-based firm Pursuit Marketing has. They’ve been giving employees Fridays off for two years now, without any cut in pay. The result? It’s reportedly led to a 29.5 percent boost in productivity.
In New Zealand
Over in New Zealand, you can find what’s perhaps the most publicized example from 2018. There, a company called Perpetual Guardian with over 230 employees ran a 6-week trial of a 4 day work week. What made this case unique was that the company turned the trial into a formal research project, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology.
What did they find?
- Job performance stayed consistent despite one less day of work.
- Employee stress levels decreased from 45 to 38 percent.
- Work life balance jumped from 54 percent to 78 percent.
- Team engagement went up.
It’s worth bearing in mind that these measures are largely subjective. Still, Perpetual Guardian was so convinced by the results that they decided to make the 4 day week a permanent thing.
In the US
As for a longer-term case study? It’s hard to go past tech company Basecamp (formerly 37signals), who’s been running a four day, 32-hour work week every summer for over a decade. Their seasonal approach means the schedule lasts for only three months at a time, giving employees something to look forward to come summer.
CEO, Jason Fried, has been touting the benefits of this setup for years. In a blog post from 2008, he explains that the whole point is to do less work, not to do the same amount of work in less time. “Results, not hours, are what matter,” he writes, “but working longer hours doesn’t translate to better results. The law of diminishing returns kicks in quick when you’re overworked.”
How (and why) the 4 day week works
Fried makes it all sound pretty easy. But the obvious question mark hovering over the idea of the 4 day week is how to cram all your tasks into fewer days without becoming an overworked ball of stress?
To answer that, we have to consider how productivity really works. As we discuss in our article about improving productivity in the workplace, being productive really doesn’t come down to working more. Science shows that what counts most are things like monotasking (aka, focusing on one thing at a time), managing energy over time, taking adequate breaks, and using downtime to your advantage.
In theory, that’s exactly why the 4 day week works. It allows for:
Plenty of research points to the importance of downtime for creativity. Switching off is important for mental processing and allowing ideas to percolate. And when our minds wander, they do important problem-solving work.
More time to relax and reenergize
After time off, you return to work feeling refreshed and reenergized. On top of that, as psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has found, positive emotions “promote discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas and social bonds”, which in turn leads to an increase in personal resources. In other words: Spend your days off doing something that makes you happy, and you’ll be better able to cope with job stresses when you get back to work.
A honed-in focus on what matters
Anyone who’s ever stood face to face with a deadline knows that Parkinson’s law is a real thing. Parkinson’s law goes like this: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Aka, the more time you have to do something, the longer it will take you. A 4 day week, therefore, cuts down the potential for procrastination.
Back to Basecamp’s Jason Fried, who puts it perfectly in the NY Times:
When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important.”
How to make a 4 day week successful
It’s time to point out something super important. What we’ve described above are potential benefits of a 4 day week. Research and anecdotal evidence so far suggest that working four days really can boost productivity and encourage better work-life balance. But it would be wrong to assume that ditching one work day will automatically solve all your problems.
In truth, not all attempts at implementing a 4 day week have been so successful. But there are lessons to be learned from this. If we were to draw a few conclusions, we’d say it’s important to:
Recognize that the 4 day week is not for everyone
The Utah government abandoned its 4 day work week in part because citizens and businesses were complaining about state offices being closed on Fridays. So, yeah: In some cases, it’s simply not a workable solution.
Expect that it might stress some people out
You’d think staff would universally jump for joy at having an extra-long weekend, but nope. Not quite. Perpetual Guardian’s surveys found that, though the majority of staff loved the new arrangement, there were some individuals who felt increased pressure and stress from working only four days. Alleviating that feeling may come down to managing the process better.
Lead by example
One tech CEO recently ditched the 32 hour work week in favor of working 65 hours, saying the former created “a lack of work ethic” in him. Now we’re just speculating here, but we expect a 4 day week is never going to work if the ones setting the example have a “work more and work harder” mentality.
Meetings can be a mega time-suck (don’t we all know it). With fewer work days, it makes sense to cut out the unnecessary stuff. Jason Fried agrees, citing fewer and smaller meetings as a part of his company’s success. “I can probably count on one hand how many times we’ve had a meeting with more than four people,” Fried has said. “Less people helps a meeting to move a lot faster.”
Know how to take advantage
For productivity benefits to show themselves, people need to understand how to make the most of their days off as well as their work days. For example, downtime is only downtime if you’re not glued to your emails while out of the office. For companies implementing a 4 day week, educating staff could help.
To sum up
There’s plenty of science on what makes people productive, but as yet a lot left to learn about how that relates to a shorter working week. Still, from what we can apply about productivity research—not to mention from the promising case studies we’ve seen so far—it sounds like a 4 day week might well be the way to go. Just as long as we keep productivity principles in mind, and we learn to work smarter rather than harder.
As billionaire business magnate (and 4 day work week advocate) Richard Branson has said: “By working more efficiently, there is no reason why people can’t work less hours and be equally – if not more – effective.”
Your turn: Are you open to give the 4 day work week a try?
For more ways to turn up your productive, check out our guide on how to stop wasting time and get things done.
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.