Does a shorter workweek actually work?
The pandemic has sparked a global conversation about whether people who’ve been working from home should be free to choose their preferred work location. It’s a natural question for employers to ask as they prepare for the future of work. Now, even some ardent return-to-office fans are starting to rethink their stance.
For example, late last year, the world watched as Twitter CEO Elon Musk issued a strict remote work ban. He soon softened his position, but it wasn’t enough to lure back many disaffected employees. Musk is among a growing list of leaders who are learning that today’s workforce prefers flexibility and wellbeing over “long hours at high intensity.”
The remote work debate continues. But this focus on where we work overshadows a more central argument about how much we should be working. Specifically, the ability to choose a shorter workday or workweek can help employees meet their individual needs. At the same time, reduced hours can help employers, because people are more engaged and productive when they are working, according to a report in The Atlantic.
The Downside of a Shorter Workweek
For most U.S. employers, reducing the standard 40-hour workweek would be a drastic change. This kind of shift in the status quo will no doubt draw resistance.
Opponents of a shorter workweek say this approach will be costlier and riskier to manage. They also note that, because some people won’t be able to participate, workforce inequality will increase.
Certainly, ineffective implementation could lead to poor employee morale and customer satisfaction. In fact, it could backfire if employees are expected to squeeze extra hours into a 4-day workweek. If managers don’t commit to a revised work structure, it will likely erode employee experience and customer experience, as well.
Why These Criticisms Don’t Stand
Interestingly, many of these 4-day workweek criticisms are similar to arguments against remote work. Clearly, every job cannot be conducted from home. A firefighter or police officer, for example, can’t fight fires or crime remotely. Microsoft Teams and Zoom simply aren’t designed to support these front-line professions.
Regardless, many of these workers can benefit from a shorter work schedule. And it can improve their performance when they are on the clock. For instance, a 4-day workweek trial study in New Zealand found that employees sustained their productivity, even though they experienced up to 45% less stress.
Less time spent working means more time spent with loved ones. In addition, a shortened workweek can help close the gender pay gap. For instance, in a U.K. survey, 2 million unemployed people said childcare responsibilities were the reason they remained unemployed. And 89% of these respondents are women.
Discomfort is a reflection of leaders gripping the bat too tightly. It’s a control issue. Many prefer uniformity and the status quo. It’s similar to the push-back we’re seeing with the shift to permanent hybrid work schedules.
Still, engagement studies continue to show year after year that work cultures are broken. Employers can’t continue doing the same things and expect different results. In the post-pandemic economy, we must reevaluate the classic 5-day workweek, as well as the standard 40-hour, full-time work schedule.
Reimagining the Workweek
Between the turbulent stock market and the Great Resignation in recent years, every company is facing significant challenges. Employees often share their feedback about serious work issues as they abandon ship, but for many organizations, the meter still isn’t moving in the right direction. The underlying problem is that we’re stuck in old ways of thinking.
Workers interviewed about why they left their companies often cited the lack of work-life balance as a massive contributing factor. Burnout became an overwhelming issue as companies shifted to work-from-home models. That’s not too surprising. Instead of leaving problems at the office, many people carried those problems wherever they were, at all hours of the day and night. For them, the work-from-home dream actually became more of a nightmare.
But employers have learned how to alleviate some of the stress by giving people more control over their work schedule. In fact, one recent study found that 94% of employees feel a sense of wellbeing when they know their employer cares about them. The option to choose a flexible schedule can accomplish that.
What’s the ROI?
The tangible benefits of a shorter workweek aren’t always obvious, but they deserve attention. In addition to decreased overhead and utility costs, a 4-day workweek means fewer sick days.
You can also realize financial gains by increasing employee retention. Say someone wants to leave your company to find a better work-life balance. You could offer that employee a reduced work schedule at the same salary, knowing they’ll likely remain onboard longer. Here’s why:
It costs an average of $4,000 to hire a new employee, and that person may need a year or longer to learn the job well enough to exceed expectations. The estimated cost of replacing an employee is about 9 months of their salary. And those costs add up fast when you have a revolving door of employees.
You might also want to consider several high-profile 4-day workweek business cases:
- Perpetual Guardian saw an increase in employee commitment and empowerment without losing productivity or customers.
- Microsoft Japan printed 59% fewer pages and used 23% less electricity during the program.
- Unilever saw a roughly 34% decrease in absenteeism and stress levels.
3 Ways to Succeed With a Shorter Workweek
Getting started isn’t too complicated. In fact, our firm has worked with multiple companies that have shifted to a 4-day workweek. In one case, a manufacturing client in a rural community focused on its pool of working parents. This was a win/win because the adjusted schedule works for both the company and parents who want to stay involved with their kids’ schooling and extra-curricular activities.
As you develop and implement your game plan, be sure to include these elements:
1. Involve Your Team
Although the C-suite traditionally makes key business decisions, every employee has a valuable perspective. Some may prefer a 5-day workweek, while others might opt for a shorter schedule. Before you can implement a functional plan, you need to understand your employees’ wants and needs. They deserve a voice because ultimately, they need to make it work.
2. Focus on Outcomes
Your employees are central to this process, but your business and your customers matter, too. When assessing any job schedule, consider the outcomes you want to see instead of simply tracking hours. Focus on metrics like production, quality, or customer experience.
At the end of the day, shifting to shorter schedules can optimize resources and yield long-term savings. In the U.K. more than 50% of business leaders reported cost savings after shifting from a 5-day work schedule to a 4-day workweek. It shouldn’t matter if your team works 20 or 40 hours a week, as long as the job is done right.
3. Stay Open to Continuous Improvement
Forecasts are built on historical performance, so change can be uncomfortable at first. But once you shorten the workweek, you should see measurable improvement in team satisfaction, performance, and business results.
Don’t forget the importance of training. Everyone will need time to get used to new employee schedules, new work shifts, and new ways of managing staff. As long as communication remains open, your organization can successfully move through this culture shift.
A shortened workweek doesn’t mean your team will accomplish less. In fact, flexibility is the cure for many problems companies are facing in this post-pandemic era.
Employee experience is a human experience. No matter when or where people work, it’s important to find a reasonable balance between work and life. If you redesign your work schedules now, employees will appreciate this change. And over time, you can expect to see even more benefits from your efforts.