Four day work weeks and the call for fewer working hours

Numerous studies and real-life examples are proving that a four-day work week may be the key to more productive and engaged employees.


John Maynard Keynes had, way back in 1930, predicted that due to technological advancements and productivity improvements, decades later his grandchildren would work only 15-hour weeks. According to him, once a worker earned enough money, he could spend the rest of the time in leisure or with his family. While 15 hour weeks have surely not happened, and the norm is 40 plus hour weeks, the few companies that have experimented with shorter working weeks, have tasted success.

Microsoft Japan recently conducted a four-day workweek trial as part of the company’s ‘Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer’ Project. The Project aimed at boosting creativity and productivity by giving its employees flexible options for working. Microsoft kept its office shut every Friday in August as part of its experiment, with every one of its 2,300 strong workforces getting an extra day off, without any pay cut.

The results were brilliant – productivity increased by 40 per cent, with more efficient meetings and a happier workforce. There were also many economic benefits – while the electricity use was down by 23 per cent, employees also printed 59 per cent fewer pages during the period.

Trials and success stories

Microsoft is not the first company to try for a better work-life balance, by reducing the number of working hours. In March, April last year, New Zealand based trust management company, Perpetual Guardian had conducted a four-day workweek trial, where employees worked for eight hours, four days a week, but got paid for five days. The results were again promising – stress levels decreased by 7 percentage points, while 78 per cent felt that they were able to successfully manage their work-life balance better, as opposed to 54 per cent before the trial.  The firm continues to offer the four-day workweek to employees who opt for it.

Berlin-based project management software company Planio introduced a four-day workweek in 2018 for its 10-member staff, while the New York-based ad agency Grey New York, allows its employees four-day weeks, but at 85 per cent of their full-time salary.

With evolving technology and communications cutting down the number of hours required to be spent at work, the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) is also pushing Britain to adopt a four-day working week by the end of the century. Even Richard Branson, in a blog post, had spoken about how people could work more efficiently by working fewer hours, however, such a move would need to be supplemented with better pay for lesser hours so that people could afford more leisure time.

Indians hardest working

Despite proof that shorter working hours are better for productivity and overall employee engagement, Indians are seemingly bad at wanting to work four-day weeks. As per a survey conducted by Future Workplace on behalf of the multi-national workforce management company, Kronos Incorporated), 69 per cent of respondents have said that they would opt for a five-day week, even if they were paid an equal amount for working fewer days. At 62 per cent, Indians also felt the most pressure to extend their working hours, with 44 per cent employees already clocking more than 40 hours per week.

Further, while employees in France, Germany, the US and UK prioritised sleep over other things if they were given a four-day workweek. Indians, on the other hand, preferred to enhance skill sets or learn a new hobby. The results were determined from a survey of 3000 people conducted across India, Germany, the United States, Canada, France, Mexico, UK and Australia.

Less working hours, better health and productivity

A survey of 7,500 employees conducted by American analytics and advisory company, Gallup, conducted in 2018, revealed that 23 per cent of employees reported feeling burned out almost every day, with an additional 44 per cent feeling burned out often. Unreasonable time pressure and unmanageable workload were among the main reasons why burn out happened.

Reports show that countries which have long working hours often come at the bottom of labour productivity rankings – South Korea, for example, is ranked near the bottom among the OECD countries despite having the longest working hours among developed nations – the country has reduced its working hours from 68 to 52 hours last year to boost the country’s productivity. Japan, also known for its notorious working hours, even has an official name for death by overworking – karoshi. Here, employees die of stress-related ailments, which are attributed to pressure at work.

On the other hand, numerous studies have also co-related reduced working hours with higher employee satisfaction, engagement and productivity. The Netherlands, a country which has amongst the lowest working hours, at around 29 hours per week, also shows the highest productivity levels, as per OECD data.  A three-day weekend enables people to catch up with their family and friends, learn a new skill or pursue a hobby/passion or just travel out of town, to get back to work rejuvenated, on Monday. It also ensures that employees put in more dedicated work in the four days that they have, reducing the time that is wasted due to burnouts and distractions which come in the way of work.

A four-day workweek may, however, not be possible across the board. The flipside to four-day workweeks is that it may be difficult to manage in professions that require employee presence 24/7, as that would mean hiring more staff to cover the hours, which may not be feasible. Further, employees who are paid on an hourly basis may also not be willing to let go of the extra pay that extra hours provide. Also, if employees are expected to complete the same amount of work within the reduced working time, it could add to the stress of needing to complete tasks within the stipulated time.  

Ultimately, it is for each employee and employer to decide how they can work towards a more flexible work approach that allows employees to balance their work and lives, thereby resulting in happier and more productive staff.