By Jennifer Alsever
Could you actually work less and be just as productive?
Researchers at Boston College, think tank Autonomy, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities just wrapped up the largest research study to put that question to the test, with 61 companies and 2,900 employees in the United Kingdom participating in a pilot program for a four-day workweek.
The results were promising: More than a third of employees reported feeling less stressed, 48% were more satisfied with work, 46% had less fatigue, 40% got better sleep, and 71% felt less workplace burnout.
But does it work for employers both financially and from a productivity standpoint? As many as 90% of the companies indicated that they would continue with a four-day workweek. “They’re sticking with it—they really liked it,” says Juliet Schor, professor of sociology and lead researcher on the UK trial and six others.
The UK study participants included white-collar workplaces such as ad agencies, consulting firms, and charities, and they rated employee productivity and performance a 7.6 out of 10. Revenue stayed broadly the same over the trial period, rising by 1.4% on average, weighted by company size.
More trials are underway
The momentum for a shorter workweek is picking up across the globe, with trials and efforts underway in Iceland, Wales, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, and Scotland. This year, the government of Valencia, Spain, started recruiting for a region-wide pilot of shorter hours, and 115 UK companies, including large UK employers such as Awin and Atom Bank, have now adopted a four-day week.
Schor’s team started its seventh trial this week, and is now recruiting companies for four-day workweek trials in the United States and Canadian, South Africa, and Europe.
“Flexibility is top of mind right now,” says Schor.
Credit the pandemic, which forced companies to trust their workers and opened mindsets on how work can be done. It also led to rampant stress and burnout, the Great Resignation, and quiet quitting, all of which became a mandate for worker well-being and flexibility.
That was the case for Literal Humans, a digital marketing company based in London. Founder William Gadsby had considered employing a four-day workweek two years ago, but when the UK trial opportunity popped up, he thought it would be the perfect catalyst to try it out.
To ensure the trial was a success, the company’s 15 employees had to rethink the way they worked, such as carefully considering who needed to be in which meetings. As a result, productivity stayed consistent with Fridays off, and the team was happier, says Gadsby.
People took that extra day to do everything from take pottery classes and read novels to walk through Scottish castles each week. The policy made it easier to recruit new hires, and brainstorming sessions were far more productive. “People came with far better ideas after having time to relax and unwind,” Gadsby says.
The company’s experience mirrored that of most of the other UK trial participants. Overall, turnover dropped by 57% over the trial period and work-life balance improved. As many as 15% of employees said that no amount of money would tempt them to accept a five-day schedule over the four-day week.
Gadsby admits that a four-day workweek might be tougher for a larger company to implement, and it might be trickier to pull off if a big-dollar client had demanded the team come to work on Fridays. Gadsby also realizes that it might not work for people who have children, since currently his company has a small staff of young people without children.
“Down the road, we’ll probably follow the spirit of the four-day workweek,” says Gadsby. “What people really want is flexibility to fit work around their life. What we’re really doing is building balance.”