Throughout 2019, global search interest in the ‘four day work week’ was much higher than usual. It was driven partly by a New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, making headlines after trialling a shorter work week and finding it a huge success. The idea has been gaining traction ever since.

And now in the spring of 2020, it’s back on the agenda. As millions of us have our employment and career plans upended, there’s more opportunity to think about how we work and live our lives. Before we go back to ’normal’, now's a good chance to reconsider what really works for us at work.

Reducing our time spent working so we can rest, socialise and enjoy more of our lives sounds like a good deal for workers, but it turns out that companies feel the benefit too.

A 32-hour focused working week might even bring the same (or better) results as a standard 40-hour one.

A good time to talk about it

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern brought the issue back into the limelight in May this year, suggesting the reduced work week might be worth experimenting with.

Now that international travel into the country won’t be possible for a while, the tourism sector will be badly hit - unless locals start exploring their own land and contributing to the tourism economy themselves. One way to kickstart that is to provide everyone with more leisure time.

The country is already familiar with the four day work week since Perpetual Guardian popularised it. We covered it on the blog back then:

"Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning company in New Zealand, tested a four-day fully-paid work week... 78% of staff said they were able to successfully manage their work-life balance throughout the experiment (an increase of 24% compared to before). It worked so well that since then, they’ve implemented the programme permanently.”

So encouraging companies to experiment with more efficient working practices could potentially mean healthier, better-rested citizens, as well as a healthier local economy. It offers particular benefits to mental health, too, which could contribute to a less stretched health system and less social unrest.

“We need to retain all the productivity benefits working from home has brought, including cleaner air and a lack of gridlock lost productivity from commuting while helping businesses stay afloat. We have to be bold with our model. This is an opportunity for a massive reset.” -  Jacinda Ardern

With the effects of burnout costing the global economy £250 billion per year, attempts to reduce the impact from overwork can provide real financial advantages.

Why aren't we working short weeks already?

“Whatever your attitude to busyness as a sign of status is, it is clear that the leisure society which we were promised has not come to pass. Who thinks that John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that a fifteen-hour working week will be standard by 2030 will come true?” - Claudia Hammond, The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite In the Modern Age.

Average annual working hours actually declined throughout modern history. They fell substantially from 1870 to 1930, which led aforementioned economist John Maynard Keynes to assume they would fall further and further, leading us to the utopian paradise of 2030’s 15 hours per week.

Not quite.

What actually happened was they continued to fall at a slower rate between 1930 and 1980, then evened off. Working hours have plateaued for the Western world at over 1500 per year (31 hours per week if you work 48 weeks per year).

What caused this? Well, without going too deep into economic theory, business owners realised they could take the advantages of increased efficiency for themselves, rather than pass them to workers. Longer hours = more productivity = more profit (which was generally true before the modern knowledge economy came around).

That realisation, coupled with Western countries’ shared belief that hard work is equivalent to moral virtue, means that long hours have stayed desirable for employers around the world - despite a lack of evidence showing its benefit to modern productivity.

As for the future, there’s a lot of technology on the way that’ll automate even more work. processes (and entire jobs) for us. Who knows what changes this will bring - but working hours are due for even more of a shake-up in the years to come.

How does a four-day work week work?

There’s no single way to do it, but it involves cutting out unessential activities, prioritising the important stuff, and making a greater effort to focus rather than give in to distractions:

"In recent years, hundreds of forward-looking companies have pioneered four-day weeks or six-hour days, without cutting salaries. These companies are big and small, operate in a variety of industries, and are all over the world.

They bring everyone together around the challenge of doing five days’ work in four. They’re continually prototyping new tools and practices, and rapidly evaluating the results. They make adjustments as they go.

A shorter workweek helps these companies be more productive, not less, and more attractive to first-rate talent.” - Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Think about meetings. Circular discussions, awkward small talk and unproductive disagreements waste everyone’s time. In a shorter work day, you’ll be respectful of each others’ time - just exchange the information you need to, and arrange to reconvene for any discussions that are left unresolved.

How much time do you spend during a workday scrolling through emails, chatting on slack, or surfing the web? Chances are it’s more than you like to admit. All these mindless activities are less tempting when you're focused on getting things done.

And cutting down on work time doesn’t mean you can’t be social and enjoy time with your workmates. It just means each team member will be more mindful of how they’re spending their time - not because the boss is breathing down their neck with threatening deadlines, but the fact they’ll be clocking off sooner rather than later. (And everyone’s welcome to use their extra hours catching up at the pub after work).

Schedules will need to be re-thought, of course - check out Buffer's example of how they implemented the 4-day week throughout their teams.

Societal benefits of the four day work week

Working fewer hours means fewer people overall in each workplace. That means for less traffic congestion if fewer commute journeys are needed. And it should cause less inter-personal contact - while that’s not always desirable, in the age of social distancing, it’s something we need to aim for.

A 2017 piece in the Guardian’s Sustainable Business section outlined the range of benefits that increased flexibility brings to businesses and society:

"As the Timewise Foundation says, employers attract extra candidates and a more diverse pool if they hire flexibly, because many talented workers cannot consider a full-time role.

Also, both efficient work and the best ideas come from workers with energy – whoever did their best work when they were exhausted?

And less time commuting to and from work would, theoretically, reduce transport chaos and pollution in our cities and allow us to spend more time in our local communities.”

These ideas have been explored for a few years now, but the massive, global, societal shifts from the pandemic are causing governments, city planners, citizens and businesses to quickly draw up plans to implement them.

If you’re a business leader, are you willing to trial shorter work weeks? The statistics suggest it’s certainly worth a try.

Alternatives to the four day work week

Taking Fridays off is just one way to shorten the working week. It won’t work for every business.

A different approach is to keep the same 5-day structure as before, but compress the working day into fewer hours. In Shorter: How Working Less Will Revolutionise The Way Your Company Gets Things Done by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, there’s a story of Blue Street Capital, a Californian financier for the IT industry, who changed to a 5-hour work day after seeing a similar change made by a local paddleboard manufacturer.

While there’s a stark difference between their businesses, they both started with 8-hour work days like the majority of companies. After reducing work hours, the paddleboard business experienced a huge shift in productivity and increased revenues by 40% in a matter of months.

Blue Street Capital followed suit, taking out breaks, lunch, and “all the unproductive nonsense that we do over the course of the day”. It was introduced as a 90-day trial, and employees were reassured their salaries would stay the same and the company wasn’t about to go under.

Guess what happened? Within three months, productivity had doubled. Revenues have increased 30% year-on-year in the 3 years since the trial was made permanent.

There's plenty of reasons to try it, at least - even if just for a month. Experimenting is worthwhile during this grand shake-up of the business landscape - who knows how much more productive you'll be if you spend less time working.