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A four-day workweek pilot was so successful most firms say they won’t go back

If the idea of working four days a week for the same pay sounds like music to your ears, the results of a pilot program from the United Kingdom may give you cause for hope.

Dozens of companies there took part in the world’s largest trial of the four-day workweek — and a majority of supervisors and employees liked it so much they’ve decided to keep the arrangement. In fact, 15 percent of the employees who participated said “no amount of money” would convince them to go back to working five days a week.

Nearly 3,000 employees took part in the pilot, which was organized by the advocacy group 4 Day Week Global, in collaboration with the research group Autonomy, and researchers at Boston College and the University of Cambridge.

Companies that participated could adopt different methods to “meaningfully” shorten their employees’ workweeks — from giving them one day a week off to reducing their working days in a year to average out to 32 hours per week — but had to ensure the employees still received 100 percent of their pay.

At the end of the experiment, employees reported a variety of benefits related to their sleep, stress levels, personal lives and mental health, according to results published Tuesday. Companies’ revenue “stayed broadly the same” during the six-month trial, but rose 35 percent on average when compared with a similar period from previous years. Resignations decreased.

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Of the 61 companies that took part in the trial, 56 said they would continue to implement four-day workweeks after the pilot ended, 18 of which said the shift would be permanent. Two companies are extending the trial. Only three companies did not plan to carry on with any element of the four-day workweek.

The results are likely to put the spotlight back on shorter workweeks as a possible solution to the high levels of employee burnout and the “Great Resignation” phenomenon exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, amid a global movement calling for businesses to ditch the in-office, 9-to-5, five-day workweek and adopt more flexible working practices instead.

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Increased revenue, improved employee well-being

The findings from the U.K. trial build on the results of an earlier, smaller pilot published in November and also coordinated by 4 Day Week Global. That experiment, which involved about 30 companies and 1,000 employees in several countries, resulted in increased revenue, reduced absenteeism and resignations, and improved employee well-being. None of the participating firms planned to return to five-day workweeks after the pilot ended.

The 4 Day Week Global group is coordinating these pilot programs as part of its global campaign to encourage more firms to switch from the standard 40-hour workweek to a 32-hour model for the same pay and benefits.

The U.K. pilot program involved twice as many companies and nearly three times as many employees as the earlier pilot and is the largest of its kind. The benefits to participants extended beyond the office and into employees’ personal lives.

Those who took part were less likely to report that they felt they did not have enough time in the week to take care of their children, grandchildren or older people in their lives. The time men spent looking after children increased by more than double that of women, pointing to positive effects of a shorter workweek on gender equality — though there was no change in the share of housework men and women reported taking on.

A majority of employees who experienced the four-day workweek didn’t want to go back: At the end of the pilot, they were asked how much money they would have to receive from their next employer to go back to a five-day week. Nearly a third said they would require a 26- to 50-percent increase and 8 percent said they would want 50 percent higher pay.

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Better work-life balance

A better work-life balance is the reason Michelle, a 49-year-old media executive who asked to be identified by her first name so she could speak candidly about her past employment, insisted on a four-day workweek when she applied to her current position. After working three- and then four-day weeks when she returned from maternity leave in 2015, she noticed a “stark” difference when she shifted back to five-day weeks working for a different company during the pandemic.

“Suddenly, it felt like my entire life was about work,” she says. She came “close to burnout” and, when her contract at that company ended, she was clear with prospective employers that she wanted to work four days a week. In her current position, she has Fridays off and is paid 80 percent of what she would earn if she worked five days.

“It feels like I can breathe,” she said. “It feels like I’m not constantly behind with my family life and feeling guilty and like squashing all of the jobs and errands and everything into two days.”

The extra time off is particularly helpful for child care, she says. She co-parents her 9-year-old son, who is autistic. In her previous job, when she worked three- or four-day weeks, the extra time “meant I could pick him up from school, we could spend more time together,” she says. “It makes a huge amount of difference to parents.”

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While the four-day workweek model has gained some steam, it’s still not standard practice globally, and much of the research on the policy is limited by size. Most of the companies that took part in the U.K. trial were small — 66 percent had 25 or fewer employees — and predisposed to exploring the concept of flexible work. Ninety percent of the participating employees were White, and 68 percent had at least an undergraduate degree.

Opponents of the four-day workweek say while the policy may benefit some workers, it is not feasible for many, including workers in key industries such as child care and health care, which already face widespread staff shortages. Some workers would rather work more and earn more. And some skeptics believe that employees’ productivity would eventually decrease if the four-day workweek was made permanent.

Proponents of the policy emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all and that the benefits of a shorter workweek could reverberate throughout society, lowering health-care costs and reducing emissions from daily commutes. Their ideas are becoming more mainstream. Several large-scale trials of shorter workweeks are underway globally. In 2021, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours and mandate overtime pay for work done beyond that limit.

There is precedent for a large-scale change in the standard workweek: As The Washington Post has previously noted, before the Great Depression, it wasn’t uncommon for employees in the United States to work six-day weeks. The 40-hour workweek was first codified into U.S. law in 1938. The argument put forward by groups such as 4 Day Week Global is that “we’re overdue for an update.”

By Annabelle Timsit