In 1890, the United States government began tracking workers’ time on the job. It found that the average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was around 100 hours. A half century later, after a drawn out battle between workers and government officials, the five-day, 40-hour workweek became standard practice.
Now, it appears a more radical idea is taking hold that would potentially reduce further the time Americans work: a four-day workweek.
Amid progressive efforts to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour and other workers’ rights, some experts say the four-day workweek may be next in line for serious consideration.
Proponents argue that when employers allow an extra day of rest, workers will more likely to be productive in the time they spend on the job. Opponents of the concept say it is simply unattainable. Workers are being asked to complete more work with fewer resources, while many employees are paid by the hour.
Moreover, customers’ demands on the amount of services they receive means most businesses simply cannot afford to cut a day out of the workweek for employees.
While some companies, like Japanese retailer Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo, allow some of its workers the option of working four 10-hour days as opposed to five eight-hour days to maintain the time worked, others argue companies should forfeit the time entirely. It’s not about the amount of time at work, they say, but the quality and amount of work completed.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that working fewer hours is actually more efficient and productive than working more hours. Workers motivated by the prospect of an extra day off are more likely to forgo typical workplace distraction or time wasted in favor of more focused work. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of the practice.
Pro: Improved Efficiency
Working longer doesn’t always mean working better.
According to a recent report about productivity by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, countries like the Netherlands show extremely high productivity numbers while logging fewer hours at work than workers from any other country. The data indicates that happy employees who work shorter workweeks are more productive than stressed employees who work overtime.
Marta Stefaniuk, a manager at Merge Design + Interactive based in Chicago, experienced this years ago when she was a temp worker at a New York-based firm that offered Fridays off as a form of “summer hours” three months a year.
“The two major benefits were efficiency and work-life balance,” Stefaniuk said. “People walked into the office and got to work. Everyone worked quickly and effectively to be able to have Friday off. Much less time was wasted on unnecessary chatter, fewer people were late and meetings ran more efficiently.”
The extra day off also helped employees’ mental health.
“The three-day weekend allowed for a longer rest, more time with family and friends, less of a rush to run errands,” Stefaniuk said. “People traveled out of town more because it’s worth it and doable in three days. And a change of scenery makes a huge difference on people’s mental wellbeing. On Monday, employees returned more refreshed and excited to get back to their routine.”
Other companies, meanwhile, have institutionalized the practice.
Cosmetic company Blu Skin Care based in Los Angeles offers all its employees a four-day workweek. “For some odd reason, we are programmed to believe that working longer and harder equals better achievements in the workplace,” said Zondra Wilson, the company’s president and CEO. “I beg to differ. I’ve found that working a four-day week increases productivity and job satisfaction.”
Pro: More Work-Life Balance
Wilson said the four-day week gives her employees more time at home to rest and recharge, making them more focused and productive while they are at work. Other countries have found similar success with this arrangement.
In the Netherlands, for instance, people work an average of 29 hours per week, according to the OECD report, while people in Denmark and Norway work roughly 33 hours per week. As a result, people in Scandinavian countries report less stress, more work-life balance and more overall happiness, the report shows.
Families with children in particular will see a reduction in child care costs in addition to being able to spend more time with their families. According to HR professional association the Society for Human Resource Management, four-day weeks help retain employees as well.
“Starting a four-day workweek again would tremendously improve the business practices and health of Americans,” Stefaniuk said. “People would get to spend more time with friends they care about instead of forming artificial relationships ‘work friends’ and employees would be healthier both physically and mentally. This in turn would save companies a good sum of money.”
Pro: More Loyal Employees
Millennials, now the most populous generation in the workforce, demand more flexibility in when and where they work. As a result, companies offering the flexibility of a four-day workweek may find it easier to please this generation of workers.
The return for employers is increased loyalty. Once millennials are awarded more flexibility, they’re more loyal. Ryan Carson, founder of Treehouse Island Inc., an online education company with 70 employees, wrote an article for Quartz extolling the virtues of the four-day workweek. He wrote that his employees will hear other tech giants about jumping ship, but most of them are unwilling to give up their four-day weeks.
Con: Increased Out-of-Work, Online Activity
Not everyone is convinced that a true four-day workweek is feasible because of the fact that most workers, thanks to around-the-clock connectivity, are likely logging time on the job outside of work anyway.
David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm based in Norwalk, Connecticut, offers his employees a flexible work environment in which most are logging fewer than 40 hours per week. However, he sees a major flaw in the four-day workweek concept, mainly because of workers’ increasingly work-related online activity.
“I would argue that since we are all connected, we are working seven days a week, at least for a few hours,” Lewis said. “The idea of going to a four-day week makes several assumptions that I don’t think are realistic. It assumes that the three days the employee is not working, they are also disconnected in total or mostly. And it assumes the employer will reinforce the need for them to recharge and actually cut off email and server access on these days.”
Con: Customer Dissatisfaction
The four-day workweek also might not work for companies whose customers rely on their service on those days. “The concept assumes that co-workers and clients and vendors are all going to view the employer positively when they are relegated to four days of access,” Lewis said.
This is actually the reason the state of Utah recently reverted back to a five-day workweek. It dropped down to four days for state government workers in 2008 and quickly saw a rise in productivity, employee satisfaction and morale in addition to savings on energy costs. However, customers grew frustrated that they didn’t have access to services on Fridays, and in 2011, to the chagrin of its workers, Utah went back to a five-day week.
Con: Compensation Complications
Workers who are paid by the hour are unlikely to be in favor of shorter workweeks. Similarly, industries like manufacturing require a certain level of output per day and per week are unlikely to embrace the shift. Take one day away, and the job simply won’t get done.
Retail, restaurants and utilities firms face the same dilemma. “Personally, I would love to have a four-day workweek for myself,” said Nedalee Thomas, CEO of water filtration company Chanson Water in Laguna Hills, California. “It’s always been my dream to have three days off. However, in my industry, which involves sales, technical support and shipping, a four-day workweek would mean more staff to cover more hours and cross training.”
“We’ve talked about it, and I’ve always felt that if my employees were open to something like that, I certainly would consider it,” Thomas added. “I do like to improvise, adapt and overcome. I’ve observed the lifestyles of other countries — for example, countries that take siestas in the warm afternoons. I like the concept of more balance between work and real life.”
Con: Employers Want Fewer Hours, Too
“Many employers falsely believe they can cram more work into a four-day workweek,” Blu Skin Care’s Wilson said. “In reality, Americans are already overworked. Balance in the key.”
Another problem with working the same amount of hours in fewer days is it can actually hamper performance, according to Laura MacLeod, who runs From the Inside Out Project, an HR consultancy based in New York City.
“If the same amount of work is expected, it can be extremely stressful to condense into four days,” MacLeod said. “Workers stay late and lose sleep, rush through tasks and projects or simply don’t finish all that was expected.”
Restaurant and bar staff, for example, often prefer to do overtime or double shifts, working 12 to 14 hours in a single day, as many are motivated by the time-and-a-half pay they receive in exchange for the extra work.
“That’s fine, except that a bartender or waiter toward the end of a double shift is usually tired, less engaging, less productive, and sometimes has the attitude that others should pick up the slack,” MacLeod said. “Customers and co-workers will usually get better service and treatment from a worker on a single shift.”
The same goes for nurses, MacLeod said, adding that in a health care environment, exhausted workers can actually be dangerous.
“Nurses also often work 12-hour shifts for three or four days,” MacLeod said. “Exhaustion in a high stress environment is risky for both patients and workers. Nurses and other hourly employees may also want this schedule because they have a second job or go to school. If this is the case, there is no rest at all, and workers are definitely on the way to burnout.”
It All Depends on the Workplace
While a four-day workweek is potentially beneficial when it comes to hiring millennials, reducing stress, increasing employee loyalty, performance and happiness, it’s not for every organization. Companies that have around-the-clock customer demands and pay employees by the hour are unlikely to find the prospect of the arrangement attractive.
Nevertheless, for companies that have the luxury of allowing workers flexibility in how and when they work, the four-day workweek is a lucrative benefit that could potentially attract and retain top talent.
Wendy Webb is a freelance writer based in Minnesota.