On paper, a four-day work week sounds great. Who wouldn’t want to work fewer hours for the same money? Research from the Henley Business School in the UK has shown that a four-day workweek can bring benefits to both employers and employees, including improved work quality, reduced stress and a greater ability to attract and retain talent.
But is it really what it is? Not always, says Rebecca Brook, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based marketing research firm Alter Agents. When COVID-19 hit, she and her team of 23 employees switched to remote working and later chose to remain completely remote. Like most businesses, Brooks says working from home was an adjustment.
“There were a lot of stressors,” she says. “Employees had personal things going on and there was a lot of chaos. We tried to help our employees guard their borders.”
Brooks started reading about four-day workweek experiments. Her business requires her team to be available based on clients’ deadlines, so closing the office on Friday wouldn’t work. Instead, the company decided to test a four-day workweek for 10 weeks so that employees could choose a day off. The company shifted from a 40-hour five-day workweek to a 32-hour four-day workweek.
“Two people on the same team can’t be off on the same day,” Brooks says. “The system worked because our customers didn’t notice. In fact, we didn’t tell our customers what we were doing. We decided it would be a success if our customers had no idea we had a four-day work week.”
A four-day work week causes problems
While employees were excited to try out the new schedule, the results were mixed. Some employees performed minor tasks on their days off and others answered emails, even though the company had made it clear it wasn’t necessary.
“It really came down to personality type,” Brooks says. “Some employees allowed their days off to get corrupted. And others were good at setting boundaries, saying, “I’ll sort it out when I get back or someone else can pick it up.” Neither is wrong. They are both valid approaches. But because there was no consistency between employees, it caused confusion and frustration and affected the dynamics between our employees.”
Plus, Brooks’ team had to catch up every week. “You know that feeling when you’ve been on vacation and you’re trying to keep up with what happened?” asks Brooks. “It became difficult for people to keep track of what had happened while they were gone. We started to notice little things slipping through the cracks that weren’t up to our standards.”
At the end of the 10 weeks, Brooks took a survey and found that employee satisfaction fell because the arrangement caused more stress than it was intended to relieve. “People couldn’t fully relax that day off,” she says. “Even if they were a hard boundary-setter, there was still tension and stress and anxiety about what they were missing or what they would come back to.”
Four-day workweeks are well-intentioned measures to reduce burnout and give employees breathing space, but they may not ultimately achieve the desired result, says Dr. Myra Altman, clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical strategy and research at Modern Health, a platform for mental health in the workplace.
“For example, mandated four-day workweeks can incentivize employees in high-pressure industries with high volumes of work to work their days off without formally recording overtime hours so they can do their work within their organization’s restrictions or limits on overtime usage,” says altman.
For a four-day workweek to be successful, organizations must address the systemic factors that cause burnout within their specific organization and industry. “Without addressing those systemic factors at the same time, a four-day work week could actually create more problems for employees than it solves,” Altman says.
Back to the traditional work week
Eventually, Alter Agents went back to a 40-hour five-day workweek. Surprisingly, Brooks says she didn’t get a single push back to add eight hours back into the schedule. “I think everyone felt like they were still working 40 hours, even though it would be 32 hours,” she says.
“If a company wants to test a four-day workweek, it should lay down all the details for employees, preferably in writing, including how long the trial period will last and the factors the company will look at when it later decides whether or not to make this change permanent. said Netta Rotstein, assistant general counsel and human resources consultant at Engage PEO, an HR outsourcing solutions company.
Brooks agrees: “People understood it was a trial run,” she says. “And some people went into the experiment, uncomfortable with the idea and worried that their jobs would be harder, while others were excited about the extra free time.”
If you try a four-day workweek experiment and end up going back to work for five days, Rotstein says it’s best to be transparent about the reason for kicking back the decision. “But if it’s attributed to a measurable drop in productivity, don’t point the finger at a particular employee or department, because that can create a guilt culture that is toxic in the workplace,” she says.
Most employees will see ending even a temporary four-day workweek program as a benefit, so prepare for a likely drop in employee morale, Rotstein adds. “Employees could see the turnaround as the company that doesn’t prioritize or care about their well-being or flexibility,” she says.
“Before making a decision back to provide these types of benefits, it is important for companies to explore alternative ways to increase employee engagement through other benefits, perhaps enabling employees to work from home more often, which could offers more flexibility in start and end times, or offer employees extra PTO instead.”
Brooks pondered the spirit of the four-day work week and what she hoped to achieve, which was to take a day off during the week to recover creatively and not just pile up a day of errands and appointments. She and her employees are testing a new program that they hope will achieve that goal of giving one day off a month in addition to the company’s unlimited PTO policy.
“Since it’s only once a month, it should be negligible,” she says. “You have to be able to commit to taking that day off completely. And while on paper it felt like going from four days off per month to one day off per month was a big change, people were happy with this program because when that day comes, they can actually handle it. That feels better than having it, but not really being able to take advantage of it.”
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