2023: The Year of the Four-Day Work Week?

Here’s Why 2023 Could Be the Year of the Four-Day Work Week

In the early 1900s, when most factories required staff to work long shifts, six days a week, Henry Ford famously became one of the first employers to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week at Ford Motor Company plants in a bid to attract and retain employees. Nearly a century later, a handful of global leaders are angling for further disruption by trialing a four-day, 32-hour work week. 

In 2018, award-winning speaker and business leader Charlotte Lockhart and Andrew Barnes, founder of New Zealand’s largest corporate trustee company Perpetual Guardian, founded non-profit community 4 Day Week Global to provide a platform for anyone interested in pursuing a four-day week as the future of work. The concept is straightforward: implementing work-time reduction with no drop in pay, and, in doing so, eliciting a banner of sustainable social, economic, and climate benefits. 

In 2022, executives pioneering the concept were named to CNN’s prestigious “Risk Takers”, which recognized nine of the most important new ideas in business. Earlier last year, Bill AB-2932 Workweek, proposed by Democrats Cristina Garcia and Evan Low, was brought before the California State Legislature, seeking to amend Section 510 of the California Labor Code by redefining the full-time workweek as 32 hours for companies with more than 500 employees. While the bill has since stalled, the four-day week is an idea that’s been gaining traction and compelling results. 

Here’s why 2023 might be the year of the three-day weekend.

Bluntly, a drop in work hours is long overdue–work hours have trended downward for more than a century

During the Industrial Revolution (1750–1840), six- or seven-day working weeks comprising 10 to 16 hour shifts were normalized as factories were run 24/7, but over time, workplace norms began to change. The work week had declined to 68 hours by 1860 and to around 65 hours at the turn of the century.  British factories began to tack on a half-day on Saturdays to employees’ day off on Sundays. 

An American mill adopted a two-day weekend in 1908; Henry Ford made the five-day work week standard across his factories in 1926. By 1930, a typical work week had dropped to 50 hours and then declined again to 40 hours during the Great Depression as the federal government enacted policy to redistribute scarce work opportunities to counter mass unemployment. 

Since then, work weeks in several countries have continued to shrink. Denmark defines full-time work as 37 hours a week, but national staffing hour averages have been below 34 hours for the past two decades. In France, a work week is already 35 hours and authorities are considering dropping it to 32. In 2022, the UAE cut their work week for public employees to 4.5 days; in April 2023, Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia, will pilot a four-day work week and measure impacts on productivity and staff morale (although it’s worth noting that Easter festivities mean that the month of April already has several four-day work weeks).

Studies have shown a four-day week has benefits for employees, founders and contractors

On March 5th, 2018, Perpetual Guardian embarked on what it believes is a world-first among privately held companies: it started an eight-week trial involving 240 staff members around New Zealand to test productivity, motivation, and output after every staff member was given an extra paid day off each week. Monitored by The University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology academics, the trial found engagement levels increased by 30 to 40 percent, leadership by 28 percent, organizational commitment by 29 percent, work-life balance metrics increased by 44 percent, and empowerment by 26 percent. 

Last year, 4 Day Week Global, cofounded by Prestige Guardian CEO Andrew Barnes, led the world’s first coordinated six-month trials of a four-day week, which engaged 33 companies and 903 employees primarily in the U.S. and Ireland and which were overseen by independent research teams from Boston College, University College Dublin, and Cambridge University. The results were compelling. Job satisfaction was higher for over 45% of participants; 60% said it improved work-life balance. While 16.7% of people said trying to fit work into a tighter schedule had increased their stress levels, nearly twice as many, 32.4%, said their stress levels had gone down.

Offering a shorter work week enables companies to attract and retain talent

Among the claims, 4 Day Week Global found that 63% of businesses found it easier to attract and retain talent with a four-day week and that 78% of employees with four-day weeks were happier and less stressed. Happier employees report higher levels of job satisfaction and brand loyalty. And once everyone has experienced the shorter world week, it’s very hard to go back: none of the companies that participated in The 4 Day Week Global study are returning to a five-day model; nearly 42 percent of individual staff participants stated they would need a 25% to 50% percent salary increase if they’re employer had required them to.  (Whenever new benefits appear in the job marketplace, employees tend to vote with their feet, and anyone actively seeking a four-day week now has dedicated resources: global job-seeking website 4/Day Week currently has 274 live openings for roles in various sectors.)

There’s an upper limit to the number of productive hours in a work week–especially in a conventional office environment

A common statement for 4 Day Week Global Study participants was “there’s no way I can get all of my work done in just four days.” Sound familiar? While startups, especially those with small teams working remotely or in coworking spaces like CANOPY, could be considered outliers as their founders and C-Suite invest large numbers of productive hours into building their businesses rather than simply working their contracted shifts, several bodies of research provide food for thought. 

A 2014 Stanford University paper by economics professor John Pencavel found that productivity per hour dips dramatically when a person works more than 50 hours a week; he also asserts that working more after 55 hours is pointless as there is no increase in productivity beyond that point. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the average American workday at 8.8 hours, studies suggest that the average worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes of the time they spend in the office. Snacking, scrolling, and chatting with co-workers all combine to make a serious dent in productivity over the course of a day–something hybrid and remote workers have come to fully appreciate after pandemic-era shifts in work created greater opportunity for working without interruptions.

Counterintuitively, working fewer hours is better for productivity

Work time reduction in many trials has been proven to have no impact on productivity, or even result in a net gain. Employees are less stressed, so the risk of burnout and the associated drop in productivity or complete absence from the workforce is reduced. Less stress also has a positive impact on individual physical health, increasing productivity and reducing the risk of absence related to illness. Teams that remain at a consistently high level of productivity helps to reduce labor costs over time. 

Microsoft Japan’s 2019 four-day week trial yielded a 39 percent increase in productivity. In Iceland, trials around a shorter work week have been hailed as an “overwhelming success,” with reduced working hours maintained or increased productivity across all sectors in the economy. 

The positive social, economic and climate impacts of a four-day week are inherently more sustainable 

More time for family, community, and self compounds the wellbeing benefits of more time out of the office and reduces the desire to switch jobs. Findings also indicate improved work-life balance among workers, and that workers feel recharged and energized after three days off, able to return to work with new ideas and perspectives on hard-to-solve problems. Large companies that make up the shortfall in hours worked per staffer by increasing the size of their workforce can help to reduce regional unemployment. 

Climate benefits include reduced energy expended in commuting and increases in low carbon but time-intensive practices for households as we trade income for the ability to do more personal tasks–one British study found the U.K. would reduce car travel by 691 million miles per week if everyone had a three day weekend. There might be a positive impact in terms of reduced energy usage at offices that are empty for an additional day out of seven, but this is hard to gauge as commercial office bills are often packaged with rent. Studies have found that people in countries with lower work-hour requirements tend to consume less, but decisive data is lacking as consumption is tightly bound with so many other socio economic factors.

Ready to try a four-day week?

Non-profit community 4 Day Week Global offers resources to help you get started. You can share your email to receive the white paper, buy the book, or join a pilot program. Six-month pilot programs are launched in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand every quarter. Below, some pointers from 4 Day Week Global that might help you to implement a shorter work week.

  • Give employees plenty of time to think about how they can work differently and encourage them to come up with their own measure of productivity.
  • Encourage staff to consider how they can organize time off within teams while still meeting customer and business imperatives.
  • Begin with a trial and engage outside consultants/academics to evaluate qualitative and quantitative measures of success.
  • Consider introducing an opt-in policy for employees/departments on an annualized basis. An opt-in form can keep track of an employee’s productivity measures and roster information, as well as linking it to company values. 
  • Establish clear personal and team business goals and objectives.
  • Consider seasonal workflow differences and ensure the policy can flex appropriately.
  • Be clear that the aim of the initiative is to improve things not just in the context of the company, but also as regards wider social obligations.

Suddenly the four-hour work week doesn’t seem so far away.