Photo: Lee Pellegrini

A Four-Day Work Week?

Boston College Professor Juliet Schor on why more and more companies are making the shift. 

In a recent TED Talk, Boston College economist and sociologist Juliet Schor explained how a four-day work week benefits employers, employees, and society by reducing burnout and turnover while maintaining or improving performance and lowering carbon emissions. Here, Schor discusses her research.

What are the origins of this idea? There were a lot of predictions in the sixties that automation was going to lead to a four-day work week. In the seventies, a few companies went to a shorter week, but it didn’t have much momentum and it fell off the table as a serious thing. I lived in the Netherlands in the mid-nineties where the four-day week was pretty common, although it typically came with an 80 percent salary. Before the pandemic, we started seeing companies trying it, but with five days of pay, which is a very different thing. It was anecdotal: this company here, that company there, maybe a hundred companies around the world. Then the pandemic turbocharged the four-day work week movement. 

Research has typically shown that employees are just as productive in four days as they are in five. Why is that? The main reason that people are able to maintain productivity is that companies are also focusing on “work reorganization,” or cutting out low-value and zero-value activities. Meetings have been the biggest target of work reorganization. They are too long, they are organized inefficiently, and too many people go to them. Workers can also communicate in more efficient ways, perhaps shifting from phone calls to using Slack and other messaging apps. Finally, employees move doctor’s appointments and other personal errands to their off days. 

You are currently studying four-day work week trials around the world with thousands of employees enrolled. What have you found so far? We’ve just started getting results. But at the midpoint of the first trial, we’ve had fantastic results concerning employee well-being. Burnout went down. Stress went down. Physical health improved. Mental health improved. Life satisfaction went up. Sleep increased. Quality of sleep increased. Overall satisfaction with time availability went up. Job satisfaction did not go up, however, which is interesting. But we think that may be because it was already baked in at the baseline—everybody knew they were getting a four-day week, so they were probably already happy with their jobs. We have a group of people whose work time didn’t go down, however, some of whom were in sales and got paid on commission. It may be just taking some people a while to extricate themselves from that fifth day of work.  

How does a four-day work week benefit employers? Companies have at least equivalent, if not higher, productivity, because they’re doing things more efficiently and editing out low-productivity activity. Employers are also saving money in healthcare costs and resignations, and are able to recruit and attract people. We’re in the middle of a “Great Resignation,” in which many employers are having trouble filling positions. And that’s increasingly a reason that we’re seeing companies join our trials—the four-day work week is a big and growing benefit. 

What advice do you have for employers considering the shift? First, let the work reorganization be driven by the people who are doing the work. Get down to the team level and you’ll be a lot more successful. You can’t micromanage. You have to empower and trust people. Employers who shifted to remote work during the pandemic recognized that they had to trust people to do the work—and it worked out. And second, it’s cliché but don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t worry about individual productivity. Don’t worry that every employee is doing just exactly as much work as they were before. You need to make this work at your team level and your overall organization level. Focus on that rather than maniacally watching keystrokes. 

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