Is a four-day working week the ultimate perk, or a considered response to the pandemic-induced recalibration of work-life balance? Might it actually make us more productive at work? And might men end up doing more around the house? Sarah Lang reports in the latest instalment of our series, What Working Women REALLY Want.
At Capsule, we’ve written a lot of stories about women at work. We’ve noticed that many of these topics are very much intertwined: pushing back against hustle culture, why perpetual striving might not make us happier, working-mum guilt, letting go of perfectionism, battling burnout, juggling work with the mental load and SO many more.
Then we got to wondering about what working women really want. As in, what do we actually want – rather than what are we ‘meant’ to want because, for instance, we’ve internalised social pressure to climb the corporate ladder or earn a certain income. Also, are there things that we don’t yet know we want, but might realise we want if we find out more? And are there more things we could ask our employers for?
Odds are that you’ve heard of the four-day working week. The idea has been around for some time, but has gained much more traction recently. Why? The pandemic – which necessitated more remote and flexible work – left many of us wanting to recalibrate our work-life balance. And for employers wanting to attract and retain talent, the four-day week is something to seriously consider. The premise actually makes economic sense: people who feel more valued and less tired and are more motivated and more productive.
Might there be other positives? Well, an Australasia-based pilot of the four-day working week, which ran for six months until February 2023, saw 758 people in 26 companies participate. The results? Better productivity at work. Less absenteeism. Fewer resignations. Less stress. Less burnout. Less anxiety. More positive emotions. More exercise. Better sleep. Men doing more childcare and housework. To that, we say hooray!
The pilot was run by ‘4 Day Week Global’, a New Zealand-based not-for-profit organisation. The couple behind it are co-founder/managing director Charlotte Lockhart, and her co-founder husband Andrew Barnes. The Waiheke-based pair, who own various businesses, split their time between New Zealand and the U.K. They work unpaid for 4 Day Week Global, have eight paid staff members including a CEO, and have volunteer advocates who, for instance, share their work on social media.
Charlotte talks to me about it all from her Auckland office. Its genesis? “Andrew was the first person in New Zealand to try it – at his estate-planning company Perpetual Guardian. He’d read some research in The Economist about low productivity and wondered ‘if I give people a bit more time off to manage their personal lives better, will they be more productive at work?’.” The answer, following a trial he ran there in 2018, was yes. “Everything sprung from that,” Charlotte says.
4 Day Week Global began talking with businesses and governments to make pilot trials happen. They don’t just take the metrics; they also coach the businesses. The primary model is a ‘group and supported pilot’: a six-month program that gives businesses access to the expertise and resources needed to navigate the process.
A U.K trial with 61 companies and approximately 2900 workers has yielded incredibly positive results. Results from the North American pilot – which involves 35 U.S. and Canadian companies and 20 global companies – are due on July 26, with preliminary results very good indeed.
And 4 Day Week Global continues to grow its research. A South Africa pilot and a Portugal pilot have begun. Another Australasian pilot is in the planning phase. An Ireland pilot, a Brazil pilot, a Germany pilot, a Netherlands pilot, and a U.S. pilot are in the recruitment stage.
4 Day Week Global also offers a one-to-one consultancy for businesses with 200-plus staff who need tailored solutions. It also provides a self-guided, digital program for businesses who want resources but don’t need one-on-one support.
A growing movement
The movement is gaining what Charlotte calls an “unstoppable momentum. We’re so past the tipping point on this. Employers need to understand that this [approach] isn’t going away.”
In November, 4 Day Week Global was named in the ‘Forbes Future of Work 50’ – Forbes magazine’s inaugural list of “the executives, companies, thought leaders and innovators who are helping shape these conversations – or whose reach positions them to impact millions of workers”. The article states that “4 Day Week Global has helped give the concept global heft”.
In December, the New York Times mentioned 4 Day Week Global in its article ‘Reasons for Optimism in 2023’. Last month, 4 Day Week Global was named in TIME magazine’s ‘TIME100 Most Influential Companies 2023’ – no mean feat. As Time said, “The Monday-to-Friday grind is outdated, argues the nonprofit behind a raft of studies of what happens when workers drop a day without losing pay”.
4 Day Week Global focuses on having conversations with employers. “As much as it’s good to have individuals asking their employer to personally negotiate, we’re more about [helping] companies making the decision to operate it a four-day week, and our discussion is focused on productivity.”
“We say ‘let’s have a conversation about how you can reduce work time for all your staff.” It’s hard for one person to ask for, or do, a four-day week if others in the organisation aren’t, Charlotte says, “but if everyone does, they can all work to support each other being more productive”.
Experience-based reports come directly from employers and employees. But that’s not all. Drawing on leading academic work, 4 Day Week Global also does its own rigorous research, with (largely university) research partners working alongside every business.
The most popular approach has been for all workers to not have the same day off. “It’s not necessarily a strictly four-day week. We focus on a meaningful reduction in work time – at least 20%.” Perhaps parents – including dads – might work school hours. An employee of Charlotte’s starts at 10am, after walking his daughter to school.
But what if, for example, you run a farm or small business where you need one or more employees 40 hours a week, which may include weekend hours? “Many businesses have a seasonal aspect that can’t be ignored. So a reduction of 20% work time might be over a year, not a week.”
The numbers Downunder
Let’s look closely at the remarkable results of the aforementioned Australasia-based pilot of 758 people in 26 companies (including nine New Zealand businesses). A report published in May showed that on a scale of 1-10, from very negative to very positive, 21 companies rated the trial’s overall impact as 8.2/10, with productivity scoring 7/10. Ninety-five percent of the companies who indicated their post-trial intentions wanted to continue the four-day week.
Employees rated the trial 9/10, with 96% wanting to continue a four-day week. More than half reported an increase in their ‘work ability’ (doing their job better).
Almost two-thirds of employees reported reduced burnout, while more than a third felt less stressed. Sick and personal-leave days declined by 44.3%. Resignation rates fell 8.6%.
Almost half of employees reported a decline in negative emotions. Anxiety fell for a third. Positive emotions increased for nearly two-thirds, 38% were less fatigued, and more than a third had fewer sleep problems.
Frequency of exercise and exercise duration rose, and there was a 36-minute commuting decrease per week.
When asked how much additional pay they’d require in their next job to return to working five days, more than a third of people said 26-50% more, 9% said more than a 50% increase – and 11% said no amount of money. Talk about good news for staff retention.
While the research showed that both sexes benefit, women tend to benefit the most. That didn’t surprise Charlotte. “We’re very good at stretching ourselves as women. So when we’re given more time, we feel less stretched, less burnt out. And if men spend 20% less time at work, they can help more at home.”
The research showed that, of men in heterosexual relationships, 27% increased their share of housework and 17% increased their share of childcare (compared to an increase, respectively, of 15% and 11% for women). Again, hooray!
Charlotte says one criticism of the four-day-week is that people will just get a side hustle. “Great, if that makes you happy! But, actually, our research shows people tend to use that time for family duties, working in the community, taking up hobbies, looking after their health better.”
I mention that some detractors say, ‘oh, we’ll end up having to do five days’ worth of work in four days and staying late at work’. Charlotte’s response? “Parkinson’s law states: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. When we coach businesses through our pilots, we help them focus on what true productivity is, and empower them with the resources to achieve that. An organisation can change a number of things to enable people to be more efficient. Some of it’s as simple as [focused] behaviour in meetings, or using software better. And sometimes it’s about what you need to say no to.”
Yes, there are naysayers who declare ‘oh people will be lazy and less productive, it’s just an excuse for a day off’. “Those people are ignorant,” Charlotte says. “Our research doesn’t support that statement. If working 40 or more hours a week was good for our society, then our divorce rates, our community-involvement rates, our youth-suicide rates, our obesity rates would all be better – but they’re not. What our research has found is, when people reduce time at work, their mental and physical health improves. Their engagement with their families and communities improves.”
“Our research shows you can have a productive business and a happy workforce. They feed on each other. If my organisation has reduced my work time, is listening to me and giving me tools to be more productive, then I enjoy work more. I go home. I’m nice to my family. I sleep better, I’m less fatigued, I’m not burned out. Then I bring that happier person with me to work. I feel valued, and motivated to be productive.”
“Then, with my extra time, I take up hobbies or start learning a new skill. That ‘third part’ of my life helps me feel more fulfilled.”
A numbers game
Employers still on the fence could check out the report on the U.K. pilot. It saw 61 companies and approximately 2900 workers do a six-month trial (finishing in December). Employees got 100% of the pay, for 80% of the time – in exchange for their commitment to delivering 100% of their outputs.
There was good news:
- 92% of companies are continuing with a four-day week
- Companies rated their experience of the trial an 8.3/10
- The vast majority were satisfied that business performance and productivity were maintained
- Revenue rose 35%
- Resignations fell 57%
- 90% of employees definitely want to continue a four-day week
- 55% reported an increase in their work ability
- 15% said no amount of money would make them take a five-day schedule
- 71% had reduced levels of burnout
- 39% were less stressed
- 43% felt an improvement in mental health
- 54% felt a reduction in negative emotions
- 37% felt improvements in physical health
- 46% reported a reduction in fatigue
- 40% reported reduced sleep difficulties
- 73% had greater satisfaction with how they spend their time
- 60% were better able to combine paid work with care responsibilities
- 62% found it easier to combine work with social life
- The time men spent looking after children increased by more than double that of women’s increase in time looking after children
What’s not to love about all that?