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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The 4-Day Week Is Flawed. Workers Still Want It

When New York-based digital consultancy Elephant Ventures switched to a four-day workweek in August 2020, client partner Eric Harkrader got way more efficient. The company changed its schedule to four 10-hour days to fight burnout, boost morning focus time, and increase overlap time among its global workforces. Harkrader, who no longer works at the company, had been putting in 50-hour weeks. Management didn’t intend to sacrifice productivity, so Harkrader compressed his workload so he could take Fridays off without logging 12-plus-hour days. He and his colleagues joked that their condensed workdays felt like a 1990s soda commercial: “It’s extreme!”

By the end of his four-day week he felt shattered. “I was a vegetable. Thursday nights were ‘order pizza, stare at the TV, and just drool,’” he says. But the thing is, he loved it. “It is really cool to be able to get up on Friday, mow the lawn, do your grocery shopping when nobody's at the grocery store,” Harkrader says. He used Saturday for fun and Sunday to decompress. “I found that I was really ready to go by Monday morning.”

Four-day workweeks are having a moment, thanks to widely publicized trials launched in several countries in the past few months, alongside companies marking the switch with splashy announcements. WIRED spoke to 15 workers at six tech companies that have adopted a shortened week. Employees generally approved; some saw it as a mixed blessing, while others considered it “a godsend.” This is despite the fact that the precise interpretation of “four-day workweek” seems to vary; some companies stick to 40 hours; many use a 32-hour week, but all insist that the same amount of work—at a minimum—must get done.

Whether it’s because they’re squeezing more labor into each hour or logging on during their purported day off, plenty of white-collar workers are having to do more, faster. Yet many are grateful. As one employee put it, “it shows that the company really does care.” The arrangement is a boon for businesses, helping them curry employee goodwill and loyalty without raising overall pay or decreasing workload.

Reduced working hours have long been a demand from labor; unions won reductions from six days a week to five in the early 20th century, and the US Fair Labor Standards Act enshrined the 40-hour workweek in law in 1938. But while productivity has shot up roughly threefold since then, pay has risen by only about half that amount, according to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute. The length of the workweek has stayed largely the same.

Now, efforts to reduce work time have regained steam. Last summer, US Representative Mark Takano (D-California) introduced legislation to shrink the workweek to 32 hours without sacrificing pay, ahead of a trial of the four-day week in the US and Canada in April. In Europe, an Irish trial of the four-day week kicked off this week, to be followed by one in the UK in June. Eighty-six percent of Icelanders have already moved to shorter hours, or gained the right to negotiate for them, after a large study found that a shorter workweek improved well-being, stress, and burnout without sacrificing productivity.

The first generation of executives who adopted the four-day workweek weren’t “trying to reinvent the future of capitalism,” says Alex Pang, author of the book Shorter, about the four-day workweek. “They all tell stories like, ‘If we didn't make a big change, the place was going to go under in the next 18 months.’” The four-day week emerged as an all-in-one solution to a range of problems that were often addressed in piecemeal fashion, from retaining working parents to combating burnout up and down the corporate hierarchy. There was also a desire “to work in ways that would be smarter and not leave quite so large a body count.”

The pandemic has worsened that scenario around the world. A year into Covid-19, the job posting site Indeed found that half of workers it surveyed felt burned out, and two-thirds said burnout had increased during the pandemic. The solution, some tech companies hope, lies in the four-day working week.

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Andrew Barnes, cofounder of the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, says the measure is “not about work-life balance. This is a very sensible, rational business practice that improves your productivity and profitability by giving your staff more time off.” Barnes’ organization, which is working with university researchers to test the four-day week across different industries, promotes the 100/80/100 model: 100 percent productivity in 80 percent of the time with 100 percent pay. Managers’ biggest contribution tends to be slashing the number and length of meetings. “Could this meeting be an email?” was a popular refrain among the employees WIRED spoke to.

But when you squeeze the same amount of work (or more) into less time, work intensifies. When the University of Auckland’s Helen Delaney and Loughborough University’s Catherine Casey studied a New Zealand firm that piloted the four-day week in 2018, they found that employees took shorter breaks and spent less time lingering for “chit chat” after tea, instead scurrying back to their desks to resume work. In Delaney and Casey’s study, some workers enjoyed the “exhilarating” and “full-on pace,” while others felt “the urgency and pressure was causing ‘heightened stress levels,’ leaving them in need of the additional day off to recover from work intensity.” One man they interviewed preferred the five-day workweek because he liked having time to do the crossword during lunch.

Ryan Breslow, the former CEO at San Francisco fintech startup Bolt, often invokes the saying “work like a lion, not a cow” to describe the high-intensity bursts he favors over “grazing” through the workday. Not every worker is a lion, however. When Bolt surveyed its staff after piloting the four-day week, 94 percent of employees and 91 percent of managers were in favor of continuing; however, 40 percent reported feeling more stressed after the company transitioned.

Few shed a tear for bygone meetings; adherents of agile software development have long complained that they got in the way of the focused time they needed to code. “I don't like to get interrupted from work unless the house is on fire,” said one Bolt engineer.

When work is squeezed into four days, the human interactions that fill the interstitial time can suffer. “There wasn’t time for banter,” said one employee whose startup made the switch. Another said that he no longer had “time to daydream at work.”

“There are some people whose main motivation at work is to get everything done and go home,” says Brendan Burchell, a University of Cambridge sociology professor studying the 4-Day Week Global trials. Lots of other people are happiest when they have interactions, he says—for instance, single parents whose main source of adult socialization may be at work. ”It’s really important for them to have those coffees or watercooler conversations with their colleagues.”

When employees fail to cram all their work into the shortened week, it spills into their day off. Multiple Bolt employees treated Fridays like a no-meeting day, where they could do focused work without distraction. One product manager viewed it as an opportunity to kick his productivity into high gear. “There's a lot more I can do on a Friday,” he says. “You get that headspace to actually clearly think about stuff that you want to do for the company.”

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It also poses challenges for companies that must deal with clients working five-day weeks. “Most of my clients, if they needed something on a Friday, were still going to email,” says Harkrader. Reluctant to neglect them, he wound up answering emails on his day off, which meant he couldn’t fully relax.

Delaney and Casey found that many of the workers they surveyed saw the four-day week as a gift, prompting them to plan their day off, work harder, and accept trade-offs such as increased monitoring. This was largely echoed by people interviewed by WIRED. This highlights the problem with employer-imposed initiatives, says Ghent University professor Stan De Spiegelaere, who worked as a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute. “Imagine if you had to prove yourself to take Sunday off,” he says. “What we aim for from a trade union perspective is the right to work-time reduction, not a gift from management.”

Until a shorter workweek is enshrined in law or a collective bargaining agreement, it’s up to employers to determine how the four-day week plays out. Workers told WIRED that the extra day off made a profound difference in their lives. One woman used it to care for her sick father. Several people reported feeling healthier because they had more time to exercise. Some used the extra time to travel and pursue hobbies, while others used it to tend to the “business of life,” as Bolt marketing director Joshua Brost called it—errands, doctors visits, DMV appointments—meaning they took less time off work. One woman described it as a boon to her mental health because it allowed her time to process the anxiety she often felt at work. Working parents relished the opportunity to spend more time with their children. “My son's only 15 months old, so there are milestones happening on a weekly basis,” said Tyler Suomala, who works in business development at the architectural software startup Monograph.

Burchell, the Cambridge sociologist, has studied how much work people need to get the related mental health benefits—social contact, a sense of meaning, and structure, to name a few. His findings show that one day a week, not four, is all the time one needs. Above that, the benefits level off. “Work is good for you,” he says. “But you only need a little bit.”

Updated 2/4/2022 11:45 am ET: This story has been updated to clarify that Eric Harkrader no longer works at Elephant Ventures.

Updated, 2-3-22, 11:30am ET: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Ghent University professor Stan De Spiegelaere's view of workers who like four-day weeks despite tradeoffs.


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