The four-day work week is finally catching on

The four-day work week was gaining steam before the pandemic. Now it's slowly going mainstream
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
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Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform, is living up to its name. The tech company will soon launch a four-day work week, becoming one of the most prominent names in business to embrace the forward-looking practice as part of its post-pandemic reality.

Deliberately or not, the New York-based company is all but taunting its competitors to follow its lead: less time spent working for the same pay is a perk that’s tough to beat.

Belgium just gave workers the legal right to work a four-day week, partly to boost employment rates in the country, but also to recognize that employees need flexible work arrangements after what Prime Minister Alexander De Croo called the “difficult years” of the pandemic. (Companies can reject an employee’s request for the condensed schedule, but they will have to justify their refusal in writing.) Meanwhile a four-day week pilot program involving 30 companies in the UK will begin in June, and other countries are planning similar trials. It appears the shorter working week is finally catching on.

The push for a four-day week is becoming a movement

What makes the formula work for employees is pretty self-evident. Who isn’t exhausted by the pressure to fit family, friends, exercising, caregiving, and general life administration into the two days that currently serve as our standard weekend? Companies, however, may still need to be convinced of a compressed work week’s viability and necessity.

This is why 4 Day Week, an advocacy group whose US team includes Jon Leland, head of data and analytics at Kickstarter, launched an online petition meant for employees at any company to express interest in making the switch.

When enough people at one employer sign the petition, members of 4 Day Week will get in touch with that company and offer its volunteer consulting services, which will include input from academics at Harvard Business School, the Wellbeing Research Centre at Oxford University, Boston College, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The goal is to provide pragmatic advice, says entrepreneur Andrew Barnes, who started 4 Day Week Global in New Zealand, and is the self-declared architect of the four-day week movement. Even CEOs who are open to reducing working hours, as long as productivity is constant, need guidance on exactly how to do it, he explains.

The time to ask for a 4-day week is now

Barnes became a global champion for the four-day work week a few years ago after he led a successful transition to the format at Perpetual Guardian, the New Zealand trustee company that he founded. That trial and others—at companies like Microsoft Japan and Unilever—have demonstrated that employees can get as much done in four days as they would in a five-day week, but the former typically leaves them feeling better rested and more content, and less stressed about juggling work and life. Companies that have run their own experiments have found that workers are not only happier, but they also work more effectively. Organizations that are proponents of the shortened schedule have saved on recruiting costs, too.

🎧 For more on the benefits of a shorter week, listen to the Work Reconsidered podcast episode on the four-day workweek. Or subscribe via: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher.

Barnes says he has traveled to 96 countries to evangelize for the four-day work week, which he explains is actually a bit of a misnomer. The idea is to give people the flexibility to get their work done in less time, so it may mean a five-day work week in shorter shifts, for instance. Various types of workplaces, including schools or farms, can adopt the general principle, he notes.

In other words, the move to a four-day work week isn’t a matter of giving well-paid employees who worked from home during the pandemic yet another benefit that cannot be extended to other kinds of workers.

But the great work-from-home experiment during the coronavirus pandemic has played a key role in making four-day weeks seem less far-fetched, says Barnes. “It demonstrated that it’s possible to measure productivity in terms of outputs,” not only face time and hours spent in an office, he explains, and “employers all over the world suddenly discovered they could actually trust their employees, which I think in some cases came as a little bit of a shock.”

A flexible schedule doesn’t have to hurt productivity

Barnes suggests that giving people an optional, flexible, shorter schedule is less about the lengthy and expensive work of tweaking processes, and more about creating the conditions for “behavioral change in the workplace to do your work more efficiently.”

“Once people started to rethink how work was done, that has opened everybody’s eyes to the fact that maybe the way that we have worked for the last hundred years isn’t necessarily right for the twenty-first century,” Barnes says. To be sure, the number of companies that have actually made the leap is still tiny, but more and more business leaders are reaching out to 4 Day Week, he notes.

“Before the pandemic, the week felt sort of immutable, like the Sun is just going to rise in the east and set in the west,” says Jon Steinman, a communications and policy advocacy consultant who began volunteering for 4 Day Week in 2019. “But I think through the course of the pandemic, people saw that this is actually changeable. This can be done.”

How a 4-day work week benefits everyone

The last 18 months have also altered the general view of what a company can and should do for its people, which explains why Barnes has changed his strategy for selling the four-day week. As Quartz’s Cassie Werber reported in 2019, Barnes previously didn’t highlight soft rewards like wellbeing and happiness. Since the pandemic, though, he says, consumers, shareholders, and employees “are looking to companies to say you have to do more than make a profit.”

Kickstarter, at least, is fully embracing the shorter hours as part of its history of “thoughtfully approaching the way we design our workplace,” CEO Aziz Hasan said in a press statement. “As we build a future that is flexible, we see testing a four-day work week as a continuation of that spirit and intention.”

Kickstarter has not outlined specifics for its company of 90 employees, but will be hammering out the details in the next several months, according to a 4 Day Week spokesperson.

4-day work weeks and the promise of societal change

Broadly speaking, four-day weeks do hold the promise of social change. For example, extreme flexibility may allow companies to better retain women, who are more likely than men to quit or work part-time to make life manageable and attend to caretaking responsibilities, which contributes to the persistent gender pay gap.

A recent and popular story in the Atlantic outlined other reasons that the four-day week is making more and more sense. For instance, it has been proven to be better for the environment, with fewer cars on the road.

It’s also the natural next step in labor history. About 100 years ago, too, the five-day work week sounded crazy, too, and it took decades to take hold, first at the urging of strong labor unions and later as a response to The Great Depression and a need to spread work around to more people.

Since then, productivity gains at companies should have already freed up more time for employees, writes Atlantic journalist Joe Pinsker. But two things have changed over the past few decades: Work became a virtue in itself, leading fewer people to push for a more suitable work schedule, and our financial structures adjusted to increasingly benefit the wealthiest. It’s not only wages but also the luxury of time off that has stagnated for the average worker.

Which countries have adopted the four-day workweek?

Promisingly, several countries are now sold on the idea that four-day weeks will pay off, says Barnes. The Spanish government has agreed to test the concept in a small three-year trial. New Zealand’s prime minister has suggested that it could help boost domestic tourism. “If you look at policy announcements in recent times, you’ve got Iceland, Ireland, India, Japan, Spain, Scotland, Russia, among others, where governments are coming out and either passing legislation or creating programs,” to support four-day weeks.

“This is something that is really gathering pace,” he adds.

To him, it’s an opportunity to change the world.