Will the Four-Day Workweek Win Converts in America?
Will the Four-Day Workweek Win Converts in America?
The case for a shortened workweek is established, data-driven, and compelling. So why isn’t it catching on?
Employees love it. It’s been tested by hundreds of businesses in several countries with overwhelmingly positive results. It builds loyalty and helps with retention. It gives adopters an enormous recruiting advantage. It appears to have no negative impact on productivity. And the sticker price is $0.
In theory, such a policy should have beleaguered business leaders on the edge of their seats. Battered by high inflation, squeezed by a profound labor shortage, and pressured to contain costs due to fears of an economic downturn, most employers are desperate for anything that boosts their organization’s employer value proposition without breaking the bank. However, once the words “four-day workweek” are uttered, these red-hot prospects tend to suddenly turn cold.
This somewhat baffling aversion to a promising policy could be due to any number of reasons, but a lack of promising real-world trials is not one of them. In reality, recent years have given us a wealth of compelling case studies on the feasibility of a shortened workweek, although the details and implementation have varied from place to place.
From 2015 to 2017, several employers in the Swedish city of Gothenburg tested a 25% reduction in working time with a temporary switch to six-hour days. Between 2015 and 2019, 2,500 Icelandic workers took part in a trial of a four-and-a-half day week. Since 2019, several Japanese companies have experimented with four-day workweeks, and the government has indicated a willingness to explore a formal policy along these lines in the future. In February 2022, the Belgian parliament passed a law that gave all workers the right to condense their five-day workweek into four days if they would like to. At the beginning of 2023, the UK wrapped up a six-month trial where 3,300 employees in 61 companies worked four-day weeks.
The reception of these trials has been overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) positive. The recent UK trial was perhaps the most unambiguously successful, with more than 90% of participating companies electing to continue with a four-day schedule even after the trial period expired. There has been little to suggest that productivity was negatively impacted anywhere in the world where these trials took place. In some instances, productivity believe it or not seemed to increase. Proponents suggest that this is due to people working more efficiently and implementing timesaving practices such as the reduction of unnecessary meetings. All in all, it is fair to say that workweek reduction trials have outperformed expectations.
Public Opinion vs. Employer Reservations
The United States, which has been one of the most eager countries to adopt practices like remote work, has been a rather noteworthy laggard in conducting trials like these. But why? If a rising tide of positive evidence and favorable macroeconomic trends aren’t enough, what would it take for American companies to seriously consider this transformational policy idea?
It helps to understand some of the more reasonable points in the naysayers’ favor: If the four-day workweek were to become commonplace, the much-vaunted recruiting and retention advantages for adopters would dwindle. Most trials of the idea have taken place in European countries with very different labor and economic conditions than those of the United States. The implementation of a four-day workweek for hourly employees in service industry roles is more complicated than for salaried employees in the “laptop class”. In critical industries that are already grappling with staffing issues, such as the healthcare sector, abruptly reducing the number of working hours per employee would be downright negligent. The list goes on.
While fairly compelling in a vacuum, these arguments are primarily aimed against adopting the four-day workweek as a blanket policy for the entire United States, which is extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future and therefore something of a straw man. Even if the four-day workweek isn’t a good fit for everybody, there are thousands of American companies employing many millions of people who are excellent candidates for experimentation.
The data shows that the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of foregoing Fridays.
A poll conducted by Newsweek in March of 2023 sampled 1,500 American adults and found that 71% support the idea of a four-day week and 83% believe that they can complete their weekly workload in four days. Only four percent oppose the idea, with the remaining quarter of respondents either undecided or neutral.
The Employee Fight for Greater Flexibility
This polling result is in line with the general post-COVID backlash against the ‘hustler’ culture that gained prominence in 2020-22. Across all strata of society, Americans want more agency over where and when they work, more consideration for their mental health, and a general reclamation of their personal lives. This grassroots urge for flexibility and widespread public support for a four-day workweek is indicative of a broader societal shift: America, notorious for its harsh working culture and unforgiving labor conditions which may have finally decided to mellow out.
This trend is likely being catalyzed by the demographic drought that’s currently underway, with worker scarcity granting employees greater leverage over employers and a newfound ability to advocate once-unthinkable ideas. In addition to this, the gig economy and large wealth transfers from older generations to younger ones are giving millions of working-age people the ability to forego conventional full-time jobs altogether. If these trends persist, it’s not difficult to imagine a future where the very idea of working a full five-day week is highly unusual.
However, this rose-tinted view probably requires a bit of moderation. There’s also been something of a backlash to the backlash, with both labor market trends and conventionally-minded business leaders working to reassert pre-COVID norms. It’s become clear in hindsight that the “Great Resignation” of 2021 and 2022 resulted in a large amount of buyer’s remorse, with recent polling finding that a large majority of those who quit their jobs now are regretting their decision to do so. The high water mark of remote work is also well behind us, with many jobs that were once fully remote having transitioned back into hybrid or in-person roles since 2021. These realities are likely to dampen the rationale for employers to entertain unconventional ideas like the four-day workweek.
On top of this, the current state of the economy may be undermining the ability of employees to effectively lobby for such policies. While the labor market still appears to be quite strong, a shaky banking system and continuing tech layoffs could be indicative of a significant contraction in the near future. Such an event would make employers less likely to experiment with reduced working schedules and other unconventional ideas.
Settling for a four-day future
Regardless of what happens with the economy, it’s clear that America’s workforce is heading for a national reset. As the country looks to break away from both the excesses of the pre-COVID era and the abnormal transitional period that followed it, employers and employees will need to find a new equilibrium on how work gets done in the United States.
Like it or not, attitudes about work have fundamentally shifted since the pandemic struck in 2020. Labor force participation is down, office occupancy rates remain low, and once-impossible levels of flexibility are now the norm for many millions of workers. Though business leaders may dearly desire to drag employees back to the days of 2019, it’s unlikely that they will be successful in this mission. Systemic labor shortages, growing alternatives to full-time employment, and popular yearnings for greater agency and freedom are not going away anytime soon.
This necessitates that some sort of compromise be reached between unbounded employee desires for flexibility and the practical business concerns of their employers. Different organizations will address these conflicting desires in different ways, but the evidence suggests that the four-day workweek is an extremely compelling alternative to conventional employment models that can satisfy many of the needs of both parties. It would behoove employers to take this policy option more seriously: in the long run, it may be the best deal that they’ll get.
For more information on a shortened work week, check out this podcast: Should America Adopt the Four-Day Workweek?