Four-day workweeks make employees happier—but not always more productive

What will you get done this week?
What will you get done this week?
Image: Jopwell
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Earlier this year, a New Zealand firm that manages trusts and estate planning ran an experiment to see what would happen if everybody in their office worked less.

For eight weeks, about 250 employees of the Auckland-based company Perpetual Guardian worked a four-day workweek, with eight-hour days, while receiving their regular full-time salary.

Two academics collected data on the staff before, during, and after the trial and found that the employees were indeed happier people at the end of the experiment. A full 74% of the employees said they were satisfied with their work-life balance at the end of the experiment, whereas only 54% were before. Commitment to the company also rose, from 68% before the trial to 88% after. Perpetual Guardian’s CEO Andrew Barnes was so happy with the results that the company has decided to make the four-day workweek a permanent feature.

“For us, this is about our company getting improved productivity from greater workplace efficiencies,” Barnes told the Guardian. “There’s no downside for us.”

If you are a manager, this is where you should stop reading. The takeaway here is that three-day weekends made employees happier and more satisfied with their lives without serious loss of productivity. Close this window, step away from your screen, and get to work implementing a new schedule that will make your employees appreciate you and your company even more than they already do.

For everyone else: the experiment definitely made employees happier. Managers reported no significant drop in overall job performance. But not all workers saw a productivity boost as a result of a shortened week.

Several employees found it impossible to do their job in fewer hours so instead compressed their work into four longer days, which saved commuting time but otherwise did not actually reduce their overall workload. Managers reported that some employees did indeed work harder and better during their shortened workweek, while others took a day off and let their output drop accordingly.

“Some managers described their disappointment with a perceived lack of significant innovation,” wrote Helen Delaney, a University of Auckland business professor.“They didn’t observe ‘a sea change’ in workplace practices and that the innovations and initiatives weren’t as large scale and ‘game changing’ as hoped.”

Eight weeks isn’t much time, and it’s possible that some workers would resolve their productivity issues with more time to adjust to the new schedule. Of course, there will always be workers who take advantage of an organization’s flexibility. A schedule that adds to overall well-being without sacrificing output still seems worth considering. But as promising as the Perpetual Guardian data is, any reviewer must also grudgingly conclude that a four-day workweek doesn’t make everyone more productive.