On paper, a four-day workweek sounds great. Who wouldn’t want to work fewer hours for the same amount of money? Research from Henley Business School in the United Kingdom found that a four-day week could provide benefits to employers and employees alike, including improved work quality, less stress, and a heightened ability to attract and retain talent.
But is it really what it’s cracked up to be? Not always, says Rebecca Brook, founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based marketing research firm Alter Agents. When COVID-19 hit, she and her team of 23 employees shifted to remote work, later opting to stay fully remote. Like most companies, Brooks says working from home was an adjustment.
“There were lots of stressors,” she says. “Employees had personal things going on and there was a lot of chaos. We were trying to help our employees like protect their boundaries.”
Brooks started reading about four-day workweek experiments. Her business requires that her team be available based on clients’ deadlines, so shutting down the office on Friday wouldn’t work. Instead, the company decided to test a four-day workweek for 10 weeks, allowing employees to pick a day to take off. The company shifted from a five-day, 40-hour workweek to a four-day, 32-hour week.
“Two people on the same team couldn’t be off on the same day,” says Brooks. “The system worked out because our clients didn’t notice. In fact, we didn’t tell our clients what we were doing. We decided success would be if our clients had no idea that we were running a four-day workweek.”
A four-day week creates problems
While employees were excited to try the new schedule, the results were mixed. Some employees would still perform small work tasks on their day off, and others would answer emails, even though the company had made it clear that it wasn’t required.
“It really came down to personality type,” says Brooks. “Some employees were allowing their days off to start to become corrupted. And others were good at setting boundaries, saying, ‘I’ll deal with it when I come back or somebody else can pick it up.’ Neither of those is wrong. They’re both valid approaches. But because there wasn’t consistency across employees, it created confusion and frustration and affected the dynamics between our employees.”
Additionally, Brooks’ team had to play catch up every week. “You know that feeling when you’ve been on vacation and you’re trying to catch up with what happened?” asks Brooks. “It became hard for people to keep up with what had happened when they were out. We started to notice little things slipping through the cracks that didn’t hold up to our standards.”
At the end of the 10 weeks, Brooks took a survey and found that employee satisfaction went down because the arrangement was creating more stress than it was intended to alleviate. “People weren’t able to fully relax on 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 were going to come back to.”
Four-day workweeks are well-intentioned measures to reduce burnout and give employees breathing room, but they may end up not achieving the intended outcome, says Dr. Myra Altman, clinical psychologist and vice president of clinical strategy and research at Modern Health, a workplace mental health platform.
“For example, mandated four-day workweeks can incentivize employees in high-pressure industries with large volumes of work to work on their off days without formally logging overtime, so they can get their job done within their organization’s restrictions or limits on overtime use,” says Altman.
For a four-day workweek to be successful, organizations need to address the systemic factors that drive burnout within their specific organization and industry. “Without addressing those systemic factors concurrently, a four-day workweek could actually cause more problems for employees than it solves,” says Altman.
Returning to the traditional workweek
Ultimately, Alter Agents went back to a five-day, 40-hour workweek. Surprisingly Brooks says she didn’t get any push back on adding eight hours back into the schedule. “I think everybody felt like they were still working 40 hours even though it was supposed to be 32,” she says.
“If a company wants to test out a four-day workweek, it should lay out all of the details for employees, preferably in writing, including how long the trial run will last and the factors the company will look at when later deciding whether to make this change permanent,” says Netta Rotstein, assistant general counsel and human resources consultant at Engage PEO, an HR outsourcing solutions firm.
Brooks agrees: “People understood that it was a trial run,” she says. “And some people went into the experiment uncomfortable with the idea and worried that their job would be harder, while others were excited for the extra time off.”
If you try a four-day workweek experiment and ultimately return to working five days, Rotstein says it’s best to be transparent about the reason for backpedaling on the decision. “But, if it’s attributed to a measurable dip in productivity, do not point the finger at a particular employee or department because that can create a culture of blame that is toxic in the workplace,” she says.
Most employees will see ending even a temporary four-day workweek program as taking away a benefit, so prepare for a likely decline in employee morale, adds Rotstein. “Employees could perceive the reversal as the company not prioritizing, or caring about, their wellbeing or flexibility,” she says.
“Before walking back a decision to provide this type of benefit, it is important for companies to explore alternative ways to boost employee engagement through other perks, maybe it’s allowing employees to work from home more often, providing more flexibility on start and end times, or offering employees extra PTO instead.”
Brooks thought about the spirit of the four-day workweek, and what she hoped to accomplish, which was taking a day off work during the week to restore creatively and not just stack a day with errands and appointments. She and her employees are piloting a new program that they hope achieves that goal, which is giving one day off a month in addition to the company’s unlimited PTO policy.
“Because it’s only once a month, it should be negligible,” she says. “You should be able to commit to taking that day fully off. And while on paper it felt like going from four days off a month to one day off a month was a big change, people have been happy with this program because when that day comes, they can actually take it. That feels better than having it exist, but not really being able to take full advantage of it.”