Is A Four-Day Week The Future Of Work?

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- 7 min read

At Happy, we are three months into a six-month UK-pilot of the four-day week. It involves 70 organisations and 3,500 people.

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The KEY: 100-80-100

This is the key concept. It means you get 100% of your salary for working 80% of the time, as long as you maintain 100% productivity.

The company behind the pilot is New Zealand based finance company Perpetual Guardian. In 2018, after a two-month trial, they moved to a permanent four-day week. MD Andrew Barnes says: "Our total profitability, revenue and service standards didn't drop. And our productivity rose 20%."

What did change was a reduction in stress, plus improvements in work-life balance, loyalty to the firm and employee empowerment. In this TEDx video Andrew explains how the idea was triggered by an Economist study that found UK workers only worked productively for 2.5 hours a day.

And when the 2,300 employees of Microsoft Japan were given Friday off over the summer of 2019, they found that cutting work hours by 20% resulted in a 40% increase in productivity. Plus, there was 25% less absenteeism and 23% less use of electricity. And 92% of the staff said they enjoyed the four-day week.

One key step was to limit meetings to 30 minutes. As CEO Takuya Hirano put it, “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot.”

How is it going at Happy?

It’s going remarkably well!

  • 100% say they are working the 32 hour week, or just an hour or two more.
  • 100% say they are getting as much done as before when they worked 37.5 hours
  • 100% say their overall well-being is better

Their comments back this up: “I am loving having a day off to be outside and active, and I am generally feeling much happier and enjoying work so much more.” Another adds: “It's very exciting to have a day off and be able to do whatever you want.”

Learning how to be more focused

What’s really interesting is the increased focus on being productive seems to mean that instead of working longer hours in the four days people are actually finishing work on time: “I’m learning to be more focused in a shorter period of time, with less procrastination.”

Another comments: “I am much better at finishing on time now than I was before!” And another: “I'm more focused and feel good about sticking to my hours, and I don't feel guilty. Before, I couldn’t feel like that, because I felt I needed to carry on over my hours to complete work. I'm sure that made me less, productive!”

And people seem more satisfied with their work: “Having more focused time feels good too. I’m finishing work feeling I have achieved a lot in my day.”

It isn’t that there are no issues. One colleague says: “It feels much busier than usual when I come back to a busy inbox”. Another suggests: “Days are slightly longer and feel 'busier'. I find on working days I feel more mentally exhausted.”

And, personally, I do take between 30 and 60 minutes on either the Friday or the Sunday to sort email so I don’t return on Monday to a huge backlog.

Careful Preparation

This step does need careful preparation. We tried it for a month in 2019. A majority got as much done as before, but some felt stressed.

This time we prepared for four months in advance. We created an Action Group to explore everything that would be needed. I delivered our Productivity Blitz (15 minutes each morning and 15 mins each afternoon, for five days) to give people tools to help focus on what they needed to do.

Everyone got involved. We focused on what to cut, the meetings that weren’t needed, and those which could be shortened.

Could it work in your sector?

The most common comment I get when I explain we are doing the four-day week is that its fine for us but it couldn’t work in their sector.

But there is a book by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (Shorter) that explains how it can work in any sector:

Could it work in hospitality? The Edinburgh restaurant Aizle is Michelin starred and in the top 5% on Trip Advisor. Current owner Stuart Ralston explains that after three years of 80 or 90-hour workweeks, “I was overweight, stressed, tired and drinking too much. I lost my temper quickly with people and staff by the minute.”

Stuart now opens the restaurant for four days, Wednesday to Saturday. “The staff are happier. The place is cleaner and better organized. Plus, we’re getting stuff done. The standard of what we are doing is much better than it ever has been.

Could it work in a tech start-up? South Korea has a notoriously long-hour work week. And tech start-ups are known for working all hours. Bon-Jin runs Woowa Brothers, the Korean equivalent of Deliveroo.

In March 2017 he decided to stop burning the midnight oil and cut hours to 35 without reducing anyone's pay. “I realised that putting more hours into work didn’t lead to higher productivity.” Since then, they have grown at >70% a year and are valued at $4 billion.

Could it work in schools? In 2019 no less than 25 US states had districts whose schools operated on four-day-weeks, and in Colorado, more than half of all districts do.

Could it work in manufacturing? AE Harris metalworks in Birmingham has operated a four-day week for more than a decade, although this is based on nine-hour days. (In the current pilot study, many firms are working no more than 32 hours.)

Managing Director John Sloyan had noticed very little shipped on a Friday because clients wouldn’t accept goods on a Saturday or Sunday. “I wondered how Friday was financially viable, with heating and lighting costs, while shipping and selling nothing.” When they moved to a four-day week, absenteeism fell and workers “really enjoyed the long weekends, especially in Spring and Summer.”

Could it work in health care? At the Glebe retirement community in Virginia, they moved in 2018 to a trial where nursing assistants received 40 hours of pay for 30 hours of work. They had to hire nine extra staff. However, the $145,023 a year in salary cost was offset by $122,762 less in hiring cost, overtime and payments to staffing services.

Plus, acquired infections dropped 65%, administration of psychoactive medications is down (because nurses spend more time with patients), and staff turnover went from 128% to 44%.

44% productivity improvement

There has been some negative reporting in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I can’t imagine why those (right-wing) papers would seek to pour scorn on something that could improve people’s working conditions.

The Telegraph did contact me. But it was clear the only things they were interested in were the problems with a four-day week. On LinkedIn, Clare Daniels explains how they distorted what she said. Meanwhile they have performed 44% better, with people working 20% less.

To their credit, the Telegraph wrote a further article on Atom Bank who report a fourfold increase in job applications, with days lost to sickness dropping from 230 to 72. “We firmly believe the four-day week is the future of working life.” said Anne-Marie Lister, the chief people officer.

There was a more considered view in the Guardian after keeping track of people over their first four weeks. “Now I feel renewed.” explains Digger Mosey. “I can’t waste time in the week anymore, and I feel much more motivated. I honestly can’t think of any downsides since everyone is getting their work done.”

And the BBC reports that, for those on the pilot, 95% have achieved the same productivity as before, or actually increased their productivity. It also reports that 86% of those surveyed will continue the four day week after the pilot.

What if you could get your work done in 32 hours, have evenings to yourself and an extra day off?

Would that be good?

This is a guest post by Henry Stewart, founder of Bucket List pioneer Happy Ltd in London. For more information on Henry and the company, check out his rebel page.

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