Four-day workweek: Why more companies are taking the plunge

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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Nancy Walters loves Mondays. While most of her friends are starting the workweek, she heads for the art studio to paint with her dad.

The free time she has to dedicate to family is made possible by her company’s decision to adopt an increasingly popular model: the four-day workweek.

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Adjusting the work-life balance can mean less burnout, higher productivity, and more family and community engagement. That’s why more companies – and employees – are prioritizing a shorter workweek.

For many workers, Mondays – or, more typically, Fridays – are morphing into something other than a regular workday. It may be as simple as making it a day of no meetings or as extensive as a companywide move to a 32-hour week. 

At the same time, other employers are now calling their workers back to the office with a traditional five-day schedule. At stake are not only economic questions, such as the future growth of national wealth and new ways of managing workers, but also questions about the proper role of work in one’s life. The productivity record of the 32-hour workweek is mixed. Some studies show there’s no hit to productivity; other studies show that’s only true under certain conditions.

Back at the art gallery, Ms. Walters is focused on the gains that the four-day workweek has brought her personally.

“It’s prioritizing what’s really important in life,” she says.

On most Monday mornings, while many of her friends are at work logging into their laptops, Nancy Walters puts on leggings and a baseball cap and heads – counter to rush-hour traffic – to an art studio near the beach in Newport, Rhode Island.

She sets up her easel and, with James Taylor playing softly in the background, begins to sketch out her latest watercolor alongside her dad. 

Before her company, The Wanderlust Group, adopted a four-day workweek, Ms. Walters and her husband would drive down from Boston after work on Fridays. But weekends in Newport are always busy, and she often found her schedule filled up too fast to spend much one-on-one time with her dad. Now, she cherishes these moments of quiet, as the two lay color over color, side by side.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Adjusting the work-life balance can mean less burnout, higher productivity, and more family and community engagement. That’s why more companies – and employees – are prioritizing a shorter workweek.

“It’s prioritizing what’s really important in life,” she says. “It’s nice to have that time to make a concerted effort to see family, be creative, and spend that time with my father.”

For many workers, Mondays – or, more typically, Fridays – are morphing into something other than a regular workday. It may be as simple as making it a day of no meetings, which allows employees to catch up on projects they haven’t finished, or as extensive as a companywide move to a 32-hour week. For some companies, the four-day workweek is a new recruiting tool that resonates with a younger generation that prioritizes work-life balance. And just as shifts in thought and economic circumstances accelerated the historic moves from seven days to six days to five days of work, so the pandemic has accelerated the four-day trend.

In January, the United Arab Emirates became the first nation to adopt a 4.5-day week. In February, Belgium allowed workers to choose a four-day week but with more hours per day. In June, the United Kingdom began a six-month experiment with a four-day workweek involving more than 3,300 employees at 70 companies. A nonprofit coalition, 4 Day Week Global, is coordinating pilot programs in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand – encouraging companies worldwide to adopt a 32-hour workweek with no cut in pay.

Before the pandemic, the number of four-day full-timers in the U.S. tripled between 1973 and 2018 to some 8 million employees, according to a paper co-written by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin. The Netherlands, Germany, and South Korea also saw substantial growth. One website lists more than 170 companies worldwide that have moved to a four-day schedule. 

But the trend is by no means mainstream yet. Some of the world’s largest and best-known corporations, which gave employees extraordinary work-from-home flexibility during the pandemic, are now calling their workers back to the office with a traditional five-day schedule. At stake are not only economic questions, such as the future growth of national wealth and new ways of managing workers, but also social balance questions, such as the proper role of work in one’s life, community engagement, and the importance of family and friends. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Nancy Walters paints with her father, Richard C. Grosvenor, at the Spring Bull Gallery on Sept. 5, 2022, in Newport, Rhode Island. Since her company, The Wanderlust Group, moved to a four-day workweek, Ms. Walters often spends Mondays with her dad.

Historian Benjamin Hunnicutt at the University of Iowa calls the push for more free time the forgotten American dream: “that freedom we have to realize the better parts of our existence ... self-expression, community, spirituality.” But somewhere along the way, that vision was replaced by a conception of work and wealth as ends in themselves, he adds. “The dream is necessary to reawaken the awareness of what is possible.”

But some studies suggest more free time can create space for pursuits that aren’t as creative or community-oriented as some proponents hope. When Japan ratcheted down working hours from 48 to 40 per week in the late 1980s and 1990s, their notoriously hardworking denizens watched more TV, says Dr. Hamermesh of the University of Texas. When South Korea made similar cuts in the 2000s, workers spent more time on personal grooming, he adds. 

Some statistics suggest the shift to a three-day weekend in the U.S. is too small to register. As of last year, Americans who worked on Fridays (or Mondays) were still working the same number of hours (40 or more per week) as they did before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some observers see no change in the status of Fridays. Others see a subtle shift from the old “casual Friday” to the no-meeting Friday. “It seems like there is this unspoken, almost respect for the fact that people need catch-up time” to get their work done, says Andrea Vanecko, design principal at NBBJ, an architecture, planning, and design firm. Still others worry about TWATs – not the vulgar British expression but an acronym for those who work only Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. 

But Dr. Hamermesh says that a measurably smaller share of Americans are working five-day weeks – 52% to 53% in the early 2000s to about 49% to 50% now. And if researchers don’t yet know what those workers are doing with their newfound free time, the anecdotes, at least, are intriguing.

Fitting work around life

The new four-day schedule at Goosechase, a Canadian-founded startup with a London base, has given Natasha Delisle-Barrow more time for the circus. 

“I sometimes train in activities like aerial hoop,” she says of her circus acts. Her spare Friday also gives her the flexibility to stage-manage cabaret and circus shows and festivals.

There’s a generation of workers who want more life in their work-life balance, says her boss, Andrew Cross: “A four-day week is an opportunity to fit work around life” and not the other way around.

When Stephanie Yang chose a career in law, she knew she was signing up for a lifetime of long hours. A normal workweek consisted of 55 to 60 hours. Then her daughter, Serena, was diagnosed with autism.

At the time, Ms. Yang and her husband made things work as best they could. They hired an au pair and a behavioral therapist to come to their Pleasanton, California, home to work with their now 5-year-old daughter. Ms. Yang made time for understanding Serena’s development program: 30 minutes here, 15 minutes there. But she never felt like she was doing enough. Then she started a new job at ThredUp, an online consignment company, with a four-day week. 

Now, Friday afternoons are for her daughter. She attends Serena’s session with the behavioral therapist. In recent weeks, she’s watched her daughter learn how to trace letters without deviating too far from the lines, mimic and follow directions, and play simple board games. 

Having that time each week for her daughter “is very transformative,” she says. “She’s definitely more interactive. She makes more eye contact with me relative to before.” The change has affected Ms. Yang’s work life, too.

With less time in the week, she’s mastered the art of prioritizing “high-impact” projects, which she says help her feel like she’s contributing more meaningfully than she had in previous organizations. And “I don’t feel as guilty as I did before,” she says. “It’s pretty precious.”

Courtesy of Stephanie Yang
Stephanie Yang hugs her daughter on the first day of kindergarten in Pleasanton, California, in August 2022.

Time for sewing and canines

As a former full-time musician, who joined her first band at 14 and began touring at 19, Meredith Graves never separated work from life. Now, as the director of music at Kickstarter, a crowdfunding enterprise, which began its four-day workweek early this year, she has Fridays to bring her creativity, intellectual interests, and community engagement into harmony in a way that supports her work. 

“I don’t sleep in; I wake up on Friday with plans,” she says over Zoom from her couch in Brooklyn, dressed in a pair of red overalls she found on a recent Friday off strolling through Manhattan. Helen, a rescue Chihuahua she now has time to foster, sits on her lap. “I read a lot of really dry theological academic research, I hang out with tiny elderly dogs, and I hunch over a sewing machine.” Ms. Graves also takes part in more local music and art events now, which, she says, means she is better informed for her work at Kickstarter.

“People have realized that a lot of what we think we know about the nature of work is a relic,” she adds. “It’s best left in the last century, and a radical reconfiguring would be best for the collective. I think it’s cool we’re volunteering to be a part of it.”

Kickstarter’s decision to join the four-day trial came after the company’s global strategies officer and head of sustainability, Jon Leland, became involved with 4 Day Global, the nonprofit. His initial reasons were environmental. 

“I thought it was a really compelling climate lever,” says Mr. Leland. On average, he says, the country burns 10% less fossil fuel on weekends than on weekdays. “If we were able to move one of our weekdays into a weekend day, we would reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. by about 50 million tons per year.” 

But as he learned about the prospect of a four-day week, his vision expanded. He began to see the four-day week as a response not just to a climate crisis, but to a growing sense of civic fragmentation and burnout. Using back-of-the-envelope math, Mr. Leland calculates that for a 100-person organization like Kickstarter, a four-day week allows for around 5,000 days a year freed up for people to spend with their families, with friends, in nature, volunteering, or resting.

“That’s so much value,” he says. “I don’t see the point of being a business leader, honestly, if it isn’t to have that broader vision of how business and seeking profit can coexist with other values in our society.”

A history of shorter workweeks

The push for shorter work hours goes back more than a century. In 1830 in the U.S., when most people had farms, seven days a week was a norm. As manufacturing began to grow in the latter half of the 19th century, unions and states began to push for shorter hours. Companies often ignored such efforts, so progressives concentrated on children and, in the 1900s, young unmarried women in factories, who legislators feared might be harmed by such long hours, says Price Fishback, economics professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson.  

In 1916, Congress set an eight-hour workday for interstate railroad workers. In 1926, convinced fewer hours would make workers more productive and give them more leisure time to enjoy a car, Henry Ford implemented the eight-hour, five-day week. In the 1930s, the Great Depression threw so many people out of work that President Herbert Hoover and then President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed employers to dramatically reduce workers’ hours so that more people could stay on the payrolls. By 1940, an amended Fair Labor Standards Act institutionalized the 40-hour workweek with overtime pay for hours worked beyond that.

All along, reformers and others have pushed for even shorter hours. “If every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessaries and Comforts of Life,” Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1784. Today, the pandemic looks like the kind of event that could accelerate that trend.

Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor
Praytell workers gather at their Brooklyn, New York, offices. The company adopted a four-day workweek to combat burnout.

Lessons from a four-day flop

In 2020, Praytell suddenly did not feel like the best place to work (even though the New York public relations firm had just won a seventh Best Place to Work prize). When the pandemic hit, burnout was high, and employees began to leave. Even founder Andy Pray was waking up and, for the first time, not loving his job.

“I felt very confused as a person,” he says. To deal with burnout, something had to give. While the four-day workweek had been on his radar for some time, it never seemed viable for a firm in the service industry. Now, it looked like low-hanging fruit. 

That first attempt was a flop. To avoid inconveniencing clients, the company assigned 70% of its 200 employees to Mondays through Thursdays, and 30% worked Tuesdays through Fridays. Scheduling became increasingly complicated, and worse, the sense of division and disjointedness in the workplace grew. Leadership nixed what they saw as a “noble attempt” and went back to a five-day system – reliable, if not inspiring. 

“Then, that just fell apart,” Mr. Pray says, as job-quitting began to accelerate across the U.S. in 2021. So last October, Praytell experimented again – this time going all-in. Instead of trying to cover all five days, the company told its clients about the switch, even adding it to the slide deck for presentations to new clients. It eliminated some meetings and shortened others. Employees had Fridays free – as long as they weren’t more than an hour away from their computer if something urgent came up.

Seven months in, 98% of Praytell employees reported wanting to see the four-day week become permanent. And 90% strongly agreed that teams operate as “efficiently and respectfully” as before while still meeting deadlines.

It’s not perfect, employees say, because the industry is chronically overworked. Whereas before Praytell employees might have worked up to 50 hours each week, now they are more likely to work on average 35 to 40 – more than the 32 hours normally considered a four-day week, but a significant improvement.

“It’s a big shift that was hard at first, honestly,” says Dele Odumosu, a senior supervisor on the digital team from Praytell’s Brooklyn office. “When you’re making creative work and you have deliverables and due dates, losing that business day is tough.”

At the same time, “I’ve started using my Fridays as Saturdays. I do my laundry. I do my grocery shopping. I go to the nail salon,” she says. And her team has been noticeably more productive in recent months because everyone is mentally “ready to go” when Monday rolls around. Even business partners are taking note. 

“A lot of our clients, I feel like they’re kind of jealous,” Ms. Odumosu says.

While the move toward a four-day week is generally understood to mean adopting a 32-hour schedule, some companies have stuffed the traditional 40 hours into four days. 

During the pandemic, Enterprise Rent-A-Car at Boston’s Logan Airport offered Trandoe Gilmere a job that would spread his 42 hours over four days instead of five. The new 10.5-hour overnight shifts can be exhausting, but it means he has time to spend doing the things he really loves, like writing poetry and nurturing his budding clothes brand, H.I.E.R.O.S. 

“With the five-day week, you’re tired,” he says. He used to spend one of his weekend days recuperating. “Now I feel like I have one day to rest, and then the other two to really enjoy two days off.” 

Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor
Trandoe Gilmere works for Enterprise Rent-A-Car at Boston’s Logan Airport. Working long shifts four days a week can be exhausting, he says, but it’s worth it to get three days off.

Making space for deep work

Advocates of the shorter workweek say a key to success is “deep work” – time set aside to focus, without distraction. They say managers must understand that “truly deep work” lasts at best between two and three hours every day for most workers. One U.K. company reportedly adopted a “traffic light” system to reduce disturbances. Colleagues have a light on their desk that’s set to green if they can talk, amber if they are busy but available to speak, and red if they do not want to be interrupted. Other companies have found that to get the equivalent productivity in four days, they had to mandate fewer and shorter meetings.

The productivity record of the 32-hour workweek is mixed. Some studies show there’s no hit to productivity. Andrew Barnes decided to try a four-day workweek in his New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian after reading reports suggesting that cognitive productivity drops dramatically after just a few hours of work. He reduced all of his 240 employees’ weeks to 30 hours, without cutting pay or benefits. In his estate planning firm, Mr. Barnes found that productivity increased 20%, sick day costs fell by half, and his employees reported a greater sense of balance and satisfaction. Later in 2018, Mr. Barnes started 4 Day Week Global with Charlotte Lockhart to help other companies do the same. 

But if the four-day workweek is only remote, some research suggests productivity could drop. A study last year of 10,000 professionals at an Asian information technology company found they worked 18% more hours once they were forced to work from home during the pandemic, but output fell slightly anyway, implying a productivity loss of 8% to 19%. Uninterrupted work hours – what the Becker Friedman Institute called “focus time” – actually fell considerably.

It’s the fear of a loss in productivity that is causing some employers to lure their workers back to a traditional five-day-a-week office routine. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk, for example, told employees in a May memo that they must be in the office a minimum of 40 hours a week or leave the company. 

The problem with such ultimatums is that a company’s most talented workers may go somewhere else that offers more flexible schedules.

To Reem Hassan, a four-day-a-week job was “a unicorn.” But this spring, she was approaching her second anniversary with a New York firm whose mission statement said it put children first. Unfortunately, it offered parents no scheduling flexibility. With joint custody of her two children, who lived three hours away and whom she typically saw during weekends, holidays, and school breaks, Ms. Hassan was seeking a change. She wasn’t looking specifically for a four-day workweek; rather, she says, “I was looking for an employer who valued real work-life balance, not just something written on a website, and was able to walk the walk.” 

She got three offers. One firm offered fully remote work. Another had a hybrid of on-site and remote. Only Knowledge Futures Group (KFG), a small tech nonprofit in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offered a four-day week and fully remote work. She jumped at the chance, even though it paid less than one of the other offers.

“The summer break just ended for us, and it was one of the best we have had since I moved back to New York City in 2020, thanks to the awesome KFG team,” she says. 

Wealth as personal time

Startups as well as software, design, and consulting companies with their openness to experimentation are often more willing to embrace four-day weeks than are larger, more established organizations. 

Since joining the U.K. trial of the four-day week, CEO Paul David Perry of Literal Humans, a digital marketing agency based in London, has seen a tighter focus and more trust from his eight full-time staffers and 15 to 20 freelancers around the globe. An unexpected bonus: The company’s job postings get two to three times more interest than what they generated back in the five-day-per-week era.

Society has a choice to make, says Dr. Hunnicutt, the historian. Between 1979 and 2020, U.S. worker productivity increased by 61.8%, while hourly pay increased by just 17.5%. Meanwhile, hours worked remained constant and often increased for salaried employees in white-collar industries, which sociologists have linked to a decline in civic participation and community engagement since the mid-20th century.

“You can either continue working full time, and take all of the productivity gains in terms of profit and wages – a lot of the story has been profit – or you can take part of the gains in wealth in the form of time,” he says, noting that society is in the middle of an automation revolution that will make this question even more relevant.

Back at the Newport gallery, Ms. Walters and her dad, Richard C. Grosvenor, reflect on the time they’ve gained back. The four-day week “is something they promised us in the ’50s and ’60s,” he says. “And it never came about.” 

So he designed his own in the 1990s, working long hours at an early web company in New Jersey Monday through Thursday so he could dedicate Fridays through Sundays to his family. Now, with a long career in real estate mostly behind him, he’s had time to reevaluate what really matters: things like family, art, and nature.  

“That change of activity is so critical I think, to work, to love, to life, to everything,” he says. “It’s being able to take that time and explore what’s going on in yourself.” 

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