Once viewed as an improbable facet of some distant future, the four-day week is becoming more of a reality in the contemporary workplace, and a pair of Boston College faculty members are involved in a landmark international study of this trend.
4 Day Week Global, or 4DWG—a non-profit established to provide a platform for supporters of the four-day week—began a world-wide pilot program earlier this year for companies and organizations that have adopted the model of four days’ work with no reduction in pay, or were interested in doing so. More than 100 companies in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Ireland have taken part over a series of six-month trials. 4DWG offers the participating companies coaching and other assistance in setting up and running a four-day week.
BC Professor of Sociology Juliet Schor, who serves on the 4DWG academic board, departmental colleague Associate Professor Wen Fan, and University College Dublin faculty member Orla Kelly, who holds a doctorate in sociology from BC, are assessing the results.
Released this month, the study’s most recent data—from the first and second trials, which involve nearly 33 companies—indicates a high level of satisfaction on the part of both employers and employees with the four-day week: Companies noted an improvement in productivity and growth in revenue; workers reported less stress and burnout, and an overall positive effect on mental and physical health.
Most significantly, when asked whether they would continue using the four-day model, “none of the companies answered ‘no’ or ‘likely no,’” according to Schor.
As a social economist whose research focuses on the intersection of work, consumption, and climate change—her publications include the 1992 book The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure—Schor sees 4DWG as helping to challenge long-held assumptions and beliefs about work/life balance and productivity.
Schor recounted an anecdote from an interview with someone in customer service at a company in the first 4DWG trial. “When my interviewee told her biggest client that she would no longer be working on Fridays, the response she got was ‘Good for you!’ I think that’s emblematic of how people have changed their thinking about the nature of work; we’re at a point where the three-day weekend is now seen as more reasonable.”
Schor and Fan’s team is leading the global data collection, and collaborating with local researchers in each country, gathering information from employees through surveys and interviews, while companies supply administrative data. They are analyzing changes pre- and post-trial, as well as across countries and companies, employee demographics, and job types.
“Perhaps the most surprising finding so far,” said Fan, “is that there is no surprise, which is not typically the case in academic research. Usually, we would get some hypotheses supported while others refuted, but for this project, basically everything we expect to move moves, and in the anticipated direction. Hours reduced, well-being improved, and key organizational bottom-lines sustained—all of these happened without the need for workers to intensify their work demands. I think this is an ideal example demonstrating how powerful well-conceived work redesign efforts can make an impactful difference in the real world.”
Schor and Fan said the main reason employees have maintained productivity in the four-day week is that companies have decreased or cut activities with questionable or low value in the day-in, week-out operation. Meetings—a traditional source of complaints among employees and managers alike—have been a major target in this reorganization, with personnel turning to phone calls, messaging apps, or other means of communication.
The other key to increased productivity, they noted, is that four-day week employees tend to use their third day off for doctor’s appointments or other personal errands that they would otherwise try to cram into a workday. Employees also reported devoting the extra day off to hobbies and leisure activities, household work, and personal grooming, all of which often contribute to good mental health and general life satisfaction.
The four-day week’s tangible benefits for employers, Schor and Fan added, include lower employee health care costs, less employee turnover, and an asset for recruiting new workers.
“Not losing highly trained individuals, in fields like health care or teaching, to stress and burnout is certainly a worthwhile goal,” said Schor, “and at a time when we’ve seen many employers struggle to fill positions, the four-day week can be touted as a benefit.”
The four-day week concept pre-dates 4DWG, and the project itself was launched in 2018, but Schor and Fan agree that the COVID-19 pandemic—which shuttered many workplaces and led to an uptick in remote work—undoubtedly was a critical if unplanned factor in putting the program in operation.
“This would’ve been a difficult sell pre-COVID—it would’ve struck a lot of people as pie-in-the-sky, and not feasible for companies,” said Schor. “But the pandemic created such levels of stress and burnout, and led many employees to say, ‘I want to live my life differently,’ and this created more of a space for reimagining work—and, as part of that, the four-day week.”
For all that, Fan said, the “traditional” 40-hour, in-office model of work is still deeply entrenched in many societies. “Social change is always difficult, especially when it comes to challenging the deep-seated institutional logics dictating how, when, and where we work. Let’s hope we don’t waste the crisis of COVID in terms of the profound workplace innovations it has precipitated.”
Schor noted that workplaces that have been sped up—such as in manufacturing, where workers are typically paid by the hour—will have difficulty with a four-day week “since it’s harder for them to squeeze out inefficient time.” However, over time, as the new schedule is normalized, they will gain by making the switch.
“What companies need to understand is, you don’t focus on individual productivity, but rather the overall organization. Employers who went to remote work during COVID recognized that they could trust their people to do the work, and that’s what we’re saying here, too.”
For more about 4 Day Week Global, see www.4dayweek.com
Sean Smith | University Communications | December 2022