This is the full transcript for episode 4 of Quartz’s Work Reconsidered podcast, The four-day workweek: Working to live, not living to work.
Cassie Werber: What would you do with an extra day off every week? Would you fill it with chores and errands? Or with yoga and brunches?
Would you get to work each week feeling more rested, and therefore enjoy your job more? Would it help stave off burnout?
These are the benefits that some people say come with working four days instead of five. And it certainly sounds appealing, especially after the long slog of the pandemic.
The idea of the four-day workweek has been around for a long time, but if you actually worked one you were in a minority. Now, more companies and even countries are starting to test out what it means in practice.
There’s a counterargument, of course: Won’t non-work time just be eaten up by unpaid labor, like care work? And won’t that fall, by default, on the people who tend to already be bearing a bigger burden? Could a widespread four-day workweek promise freedom and rest, but deliver more drudgery for less pay?
This is Work Reconsidered, a podcast from Quartz. I’m your host, Cassie Werber. Today we’ll be talking about the four-day workweek: when is less truly more?
Today I’m joined by Quartz At Work senior reporter Lila MacClellan. Hi Lila.
Lila MacLellan: Hi, Cassie. How are you?
Cassie Werber: I’m good today. How are you?
Lila MacLellan: I’m good. Thank you.
Cassie Werber: What exactly do we mean when we talk about the four-day workweek?
Lila MacLellan: So simply put, it means adding a day to the weekend. So working four days a week instead of five. It gets way more complicated than that, and we can get into all the permutations later.
Cassie Werber: Yes. Okay. But basically, you work four days, you have three days off.
Lila MacLellan: Right.
Cassie Werber: But that’s not the only way to define it. Is it?
Lila MacLellan: Right. So, one form we can take is that people are expected to work for four 10-hour days.
Cassie Werber: Fun.
Lila MacLellan: That idea has existed for a while, right? That’s kind of like shift work.
Cassie Werber: Yeah.
Lila MacLellan: And that is what some sort of small and medium sized companies are playing with right now. I guess we can call that the compressed workweek.
Cassie Werber: Yeah.
Lila MacLellan: Then another form is the reduced workweek, which means that your hours are actually cut. So in some of these pilot studies, people are going to 35 hours, ideally, you’re going to 32 hours, but you are maintaining 100% of the pay, so eight hours a day for four days, but without a pay cut.
Cassie Werber: Sounds great.
Lila MacLellan: It does sound great. Finally, there can be another condition where you go to four days, you work 32 hours, and you do take a pay cut. And that’s also something that has existed for a while.
Cassie Werber: Yeah, that’s like part time.
Lila MacLellan: Exactly.
Cassie Werber: Okay. So essentially, it seems like there are kind of two main approaches, as I understand it, there’s the 4 Day Week Global approach, the one you just mentioned, which is about reducing the total number of hours worked by any particular person in a given week, and then you kind of benchmark productivity, and you’re trying to stay at that level. And the other is about working the same number of hours, but in fewer days.
Lila MacLellan: Correct. And, you know, I gotta say that some people feel like we’re already working the four-day workweek, like the four-day workweek is already here. But it’s just that we can’t see it, because we’re in meetings all the time, or we’re slacking all the time. And if we would just, you know, look at those opportunities where we can cut out some of the slack in the day — not the Slack, the software, but the actual slack – then we might find that we can, we can do everything that we’re doing now in four days. And, in fact, the companies that have opted into the 4 Day [Week] Global experiment, they have all decided that it would be okay to sort of densify their workloads.
Cassie Werber: So you recently attended a conference in Montreal for people who run remote or hybrid companies.
Lila MacLellan: Right. So it was called the Running Remote conference. And it’s dedicated to you know, companies who have hybrid workers or are entirely remote and operate around the world. So it seemed like a good opportunity to get some people’s perspectives on what the four-day workweek would mean to them. And if it would be helpful.
Cassie Werber: Did you find people were working full day weeks? I mean, was that something that came up a lot?
Lila MacLellan: So no. Pretty much across the board, I would say people there were already committed to the idea of working flexible hours. It didn’t really matter what day how many days it was or what day it would be the when you would be working. But I will say off the top that at least a couple of people just flat out said that it was a bad idea in their interpretation.
Cassie Werber: What’s the problem that the four-day workweek is trying to solve, actually, why is it having this moment?
Lila MacLellan: Well, I think it’s because we’ve also seen a lot of talk about burnout and exhaustion among workers. Something like 67% of workers said that they felt stressed and burned out in a recent survey I was reading about. Also, because of all of this stress and exhaustion, people are quitting at high rates, we have the, you know, the great resignation and the great reshuffling that is affecting women disproportionately, right. So one way that companies see that they can attract people is by saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got this four-day workweek benefit, you might be able to actually have a life if you come and work here.’
And then the other reason has less to do with what companies are looking for and more to do with, you know, the zeitgeist. People are, after the pandemic, rethinking the way that they use their time and what work means in their life and looking for other ways that they could have more time with family, have more time in their communities, support local artists, go take that course that they always wanted to take. So they’re trying to rebalance. And it became one of those moments when employers or bosses, everyone, looked at the system and said, Oh, hey, we can do things differently. And that opened them up to other ideas as well. Now, you know, it has the attention of governments and municipalities who are looking at ways to rethink things.
Cassie Werber: Tell me about the shortened workweek, the 32-hour workweek. Where does that come from? And where is that happening?
Lila MacLellan: Ok I wouldn’t say that it comes from this person, but a man named Andrew Barnes who ran a company in New Zealand called Perpetual Guardian, an insurance company. In 2018 he was reading about the four-day workweek on an airplane and he decided that it seems like something he he should try it his own firm. So they did an experiment. And they realized that they were 25% more productive, working a four-day workweek. Barnes has kind of taken this idea now and he’s gone global. He now runs something called 4 Day [Week] Global, which is a kind of community or nonprofit group that also now has offshoots in the UK and in the US. And they are running these huge pilot programs. Studies really of the four-day workweek in different countries. So there, they already ran a study in Iceland that was quite successful, and now nearly 90% of people In Iceland, either are working on a reduced workweek schedule, or they have access to it.
Cassie Werber: Wow, that is massive.
Lila MacLellan: I know, right? You must be aware also that in the UK, they just started another trial with more than 3,000 workers.
Cassie Werber: It’s 30 companies, isn’t it? And they’re all doing it at the same time. And they’re kind of being studied and measured. Is that right?
Lila MacLellan: It’s actually 70 companies.
Cassie Werber: Oh, wow.
Lila MacLellan: Or more. Only 45 companies have gone public. There’s a list on the Quartz website. And what’s interesting is, yes, there are a lot of the companies you would expect to be doing this, like ad agencies or marketing companies, but there are also, like, fish and chip stores—you know, the unexpected.
Cassie Werber: I also wrote a piece about Andrew Barnes a while ago. And what struck me about him was that he seemed to have gone into it with this quite experimental attitude. And he got researchers in to study his workers. And then he took that data, and he created a model, didn’t he for other companies to follow?
Lila MacLellan: Exactly. So they’re now working with academics at Oxford, and Cambridge, and Boston College. They’re tracking what happens in these pilot programs that are also going to take off next in Spain and Scotland. And they’re really tracking, you know, how does this affect productivity? How does it affect employee happiness? Customer satisfaction, what effect does that have on commuting? Profits? All of those things.
Cassie Werber: Where else is trying this? And you’ve mentioned the UK, which I know about, you said Spain is doing a trial, where else is this kind of a big thing.
Lila MacLellan: So if you can believe it, the Japanese government is urging companies to now look at this. They put that out last year, during the pandemic. In Belgium, they’re now offering the four-day workweek or are asking employers to at least make it available to employees who request it. Yeah, the UAE just moved to a four-day workweek. Wow. And that is interesting because they are trying to get their weekend more aligned with the West, right. So they’ve moved from a Friday, Saturday weekend, to a Friday afternoon to Sunday or all day Friday to Sunday, depending where you live, okay, for government workers, but they expect private employers to follow. And Sri Lanka is now trying this with public sector employees and urging them to go and also grow food when they’re not working. Sometimes there are these like agendas that are attached to it.
Cassie Werber: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that a lot of it’s coming from down from the top.
Lila MacLellan: Right. And in Japan, they’re not just trying to sort of reduce karoshi, which is like death from overwork. But they’re also concerned about the population rates so they want people to get out there and socialize, meet each other, and have families.
Cassie Werber: Wow, can you just say that again? What’s the death from overwork issue?
Lila MacLellan: Karoshi? That started to become a problem in the 70s in Japan and it now seems to have spread to a lot of other countries where people are, you know, dropping dead of a heart attack, let’s say, when they are working too many hours.
Cassie Werber: And also Japan has got this declining birth rate. And one of the theories behind that is that people just aren’t dating enough because they’re working all the time.
Lila MacLellan: Exactly. So it’s not just about work at this point, it’s also about the rest of the society.
Cassie Werber: So what are some of the benefits that have been demonstrated by these studies? What do they show?
Lila MacLellan: I’ve got quite a long list here. So Juliet Schor, who’s an economist and as a sociology professor at Boston College, and she is one of the academics consulting now with a four-day global group. And she has an excellent TED talk out right now about the four-day workweek. So she likes to talk about the benefits as they apply to the employee, the employer and to society at large. So I’m going to borrow that framework and add on some of the other things that I’ve read about and seen. First of all, for employees, people are better able to manage their outside commitments. And you can also, as I said earlier, you can also pursue things that just make your life richer, whether it’s learning a new skill, seeing friends, gardening. You can train for something, take an exam to get certified, and use that extra date for your career. One thing that Juliet Schor mentioned is like, we have improved our productivity a lot like companies have over time. But the average worker hasn’t seen that gain in their wages. So this is a way for them to actually profit from that technological change. The studies have shown so far that you have better retention rates. When you have a four-day week like this, companies see fewer sick days. They may see profits go up. Now that’s something that’s mostly kind of anecdotal, with company by company. They may see productivity go up. But I did see one company where it actually went down by exactly 20%. And then can we move outside the employee and employer?
Cassie Werber: Do it.
Lila MacLellan: Ok. So the four-day workweek might actually help with climate crisis, because it could help lower the overall carbon footprint of a country and at a household level even kind of encouraged people to say travel in less carbon intensive ways, or to order in food that’s delivered less often, just to sort of slow down, which is better for the climate overall, studies have shown.
It also allows people who may feel uncomfortable in the workplace to experience fewer micro aggressions, if that’s been an issue. Which is something that we’ve already seen when we talk about why hybrid work is a good idea. On top of all of the other structural changes that are extremely necessary. This is one indirect benefit. Finally, it may even open the door to concepts like universal basic income. Because governments are going to see the value.
Cassie Werber: Lots of companies are actually experimenting with changing from five days to four, right, in different ways. So who has tried it?
Lila MacLellan: Some of the big ones we heard about, even before the pandemic were Microsoft, in Japan, and Unilever in New Zealand. In the US, Kickstarter has just started their own trial. More recently, in Japan and around Asia, Panasonic and Hitachi have either launched or announced that they are adopting the four-day workweek. In Indonesia there’s a peer-to-peer lender that’s trying it. There’s a Korean edtech company. So it’s quite global at this point.
Cassie Werber: Yeah. And they’re not also small companies, but actually some of these big, multi-layered companies.
Lila MacLellan: Exactly. Like Panasonic. I mean, it’s an iconic company in Japan, and it’s huge.
Cassie Werber: Have you spoken to any of these companies who are actually trying it?
Lila MacLellan: So I have spoken to a software company in Montreal that has introduced their own version of the four-day workweek. They’re called Unito. And what you need to know is they make software that allows you to use all the different software that you like, all the different apps you have on your computer, and they make it so they’re interoperable.
I recently spoke to CFO Marie Rose Rioux at Unito about their experiences with this because they were talking about it before the pandemic and then they decided to just go forward with it in 2020.
Cassie Werber: So how do they work before introducing it and how are they working now? What’s the change?
Lila MacLellan: So they have an interesting sort of suite of benefits. One option for employees is to take a four-day workweek. But to do that with a pay cut at the same time.
Cassie Werber: So that’s essentially moving people to a part time structure. Basically, if they work less, they get paid less.
Lila MacLellan: Exactly. So the reason they did that is because they really want people to disconnect on that extra day off. And I think, you know, in some cases, people who take the four-day workweek might actually find themselves working on that extra day otherwise. So this was a way for them to say, ‘Hey, this is really about what you need to do for yourself with that time.’
Marie Rose Rioux: Ok, Let me jump in. In terms of a flexible schedule. We are all productive at different times in the day. The nine to five may make sense to some people but may not to others. Some people are morning people, some people are night. You have, you know, parents, family life, and everybody has a different kind of schedule. So we want to give the ability for everyone to work when they are most productive, when it makes more sense for them. So we do offer that. However, the challenge with that obviously is the logistics communication and collaborations. And so we do ask that everybody is available between kind of 10am to 4pm. But the availability is there for coordination, communication, syncing with your teammates so on so forth, it doesn’t mean that you have to be actively working, but have to you have to be available to take a call take a meeting, and so forth.
Lila MacLellan: Another option that keep people was to take the swap out one of their weekend days. So you still only have two days off in the week, but it might be Wednesday and Sunday instead of Saturday and Sunday.
Cassie Werber: That sounds weird to me. Did anyone take that?
Lila MacLellan: They did. In fact, Sarah, who is the employee success manager there which is, you know, basically she’s the head of HR. She decided to take that because she wanted to go skiing and during the pandemic, when, you know, there were curfews and lockdowns, the ski slopes were packed on weekends. So she said, Okay, I’m gonna go skiing during the week and take Sunday off. But it turns out that she didn’t enjoy it because she missed having those two days off in a row to really decompress.
Cassie Werber: So with Unito get the results they wanted from the four-day week as they organized it?
Lila MacLellan: Yes. You know, so one thing they said is that they did not see a lot of people leaving, like they didn’t have a lot of attrition during the pandemic. And that was something they were worried about. But it ended up being pretty much the same as before the pandemic. There was a case or two where the four-day workweek didn’t do what the employee thought it would. Somebody was struggling with a mental health issue, and they thought that taking a day off work would help with that, and it turned out that it didn’t. In some cases, taking an extra day off may not be the answer.
Cassie Werber: So do they have advice for other companies trying this?
Lila MacLellan: They do. So they really think that you should understand why you’re doing it first. You have to be able to answer that question.
Marie Rose Rioux: We really put some thought into it before we went to it. Not only do we have like a lot of elements already in place that help us kind of keep the pulse with everyone, like we have a very good cadence of one-on-ones, we have a very good way to quantify the autonomy and efficiency and velocity of people. And so knowing that’s already in place, and communicating very well how we thought about this, and why certain people are eligible, and when you can be eligible, and why certain roles may not be or why certain roles are, and really communicated the why behind it helped us. We’re a small company, which means certain roles are difficult to drop one day a week, so we really opened that up and communicated to the company, to everybody. And I think that helped a lot to manage expectations around it.
Lila MacLellan: Finally, I will say they’re, a really great piece of advice is that companies need to keep reconsidering, evaluating what they’re doing and maybe evolving as they’re using the program. Because they even admitted some of what they put in place wasn’t quite right. And they’re still tinkering.
Cassie Werber: So is it a model that other companies might follow the way that they do it? Is it kind of an example of how to do it well? Or if another company of a similar size or another tech company wanted to try a four-day week, would they go about it in the same way?
Lila MacLellan: You know, it really comes down to the company, who your employees are, and what kind of work you’re doing. And so I don’t know that this is the model for everyone. I think, the idea of maintaining pay at 100% for 80% of the work, if you do have the ability to cut out the slack in your workday, that sounds like it would be more beneficial to employees if it’s managed well.
Cassie Werber: Yeah. I like the sound of that one, too.
Lila MacLellan: Yeah, me too. I mean, Cassie, you also work a four-day week, right?
Cassie Werber: I do. The way I structure my week is that I actually work. I work three paid days. And one day on my own project. And then I do a fifth day, which is with the kids. And my husband does four paid days and one day of childcare. So what we decided when we had our first child is that he would go down to a four-day week, and I am taking a pay cut in order to pursue something else.
Lila MacLellan: What is that something else?
Cassie Werber: I am writing fiction.
Lila MacLellan: Oh, amazing. That’s great. And so it sounds like you guys really worked it out and that it’s functioning for you. This is a really great time to introduce Jana Javornik. She is an associate professor of work and employment relations at the University of Leeds. So she studies women in work. And she’s really raising some interesting questions about what the four-day workweek means to different social groups.
Jana Javornik: So what happens even in societies where they have drastically reduced the number of hours that people do, and work, we haven’t seen a major shift in gender roles. So for example, the Netherlands, France, even Denmark, which has one of the shortest working weeks in the OECD group. We’ve seen the gender gap narrowing, but not necessarily men picking up the slack and doing the unpaid work. So my key concern here is, when we are talking about condensing the workweek, are we really thinking about all social groups in the labor market? Are we really considering all the effects of it? Is everyone really thinking this is a smart idea? And for me, I think it would be a much better, wiser conversation to be talking about the reducing working hours, rather than the working week.
Lila MacLellan: One of her primary concerns, really, is that we haven’t figured out how to measure the unpaid work of caregiving that mostly women do. And she makes a great point that we have now figured out how to measure the contribution of bees to a country’s GDP. We still have so much unpaid work being done by women.
Cassie Werber: Yeah, and I would say—and I think this is something that Jana talks about, too—is that while lots of companies and now governments are talking about this kind of change in workplace hours or dynamics, I don’t know very many people who have made that decision that they will cut down equally, on a personal level. Most of the women I know, to be honest, who go back to work after having children have gone back part time and most of the men in those heterosexual couples still work full time. And that’s partly because structurally, men get paid more than women. And so it’s easier to cut down a woman’s work, paid work, and not kind of eat into the family finances and so that seems to happen more
Lila MacLellan: Precisely. And you know, when it’s not really what the woman would have chosen, it’s profoundly unfair. And Jana does talk about this. And she mentioned that during the pandemic, there was one study that looked at whether or not men picked up some of the extra housework because they were at home, and they did. But as soon as the world started opening up again, they dropped those extra minutes of time that they would have spent on household care, which is kind of infuriating.
Jana Javornik: So what we’ve noticed in Sweden, which I hope is known as a gender equality society, where both parents are expected to provide care, pick up children, even in Sweden, it happens that it’s predominantly women who do that. So on the one hand, we have that expectation of shorter working hours. But what didn’t happen was the workload hasn’t been reduced, meaning that the pressure to do the work was still there. It’s just that women were now pressured to actually leave early, pick up a kid, be a mother for a couple of hours, do what mothers do with their kids in the afternoon, and then resume work once the child went to bed. So that really added not only the stress and the pressure, but actually added extra hours in their own time, something we call leisure time.
Cassie Werber: What are some of the other pitfalls that you can see happening with a four-day workweek?
Lila MacLellan: Jana, she’s concerned that not everyone is going to be as conscious about what the four-day workweek means to teachers or nurses and others who are not in office jobs. And she’s afraid that, you know, they’ll be left behind. Because often, you know, we talk about well, should school stay open? Or should they close? And what would this mean for parents? I even asked that question of her. And she said, you know, a lot of people who work in schools, or do childcare or health care are women. And if we’re going to do this, they need to benefit from it as well. People like her have been talking about the value of reducing the workload for decades. They just didn’t call it the four-day week. So she says that now, a lot of white men, male academics, have picked up this term and they’re running with it, and governments are jumping on it, and she’s sort of saying like, ‘Hey, let’s slow down. Let’s do this carefully. Think about what it means for everyone and be as imaginative as possible.’ Because we did—this is all a social construct, you know, the way that we set up work. And so we can think about it differently.
Cassie Werber: I think that’s a fantastic summary and I have enjoyed talking to you about this so much, Lila. So thank you for joining me to talk about the four-day week.
Lila MacLellan: Thank you, Cassie. I really enjoyed this.
Cassie Werber: Work Reconsidered is a podcast from Quartz. I’m your host, Cassie Werber. This episode was produced by Lila MacLellan and Nicole Kelly. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. This episode was edited by Francesca Donner. Our theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira.
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