Companies around the world are cutting people's workweek but not their wages in an effort to avoid burnout and improve wellbeing.
Avoiding burnout, the quest for better wellbeing, making childcare easier – there are lots of reasons companies are looking to work shorter hours in smarter ways.
Avoiding burnout, the quest for better wellbeing, making childcare easier – there are lots of reasons companies are looking to work shorter hours in smarter ways.
Anastasiia_New via Getty Images

In the San Francisco offices of software company Monograph, Wednesdays are affectionately known as the “the mid-weekend.” That’s the day most people choose to take off – but in addition to a conventional weekend, not instead of it.

Three years ago, Moe Amaya and his co-founders Alex Dixon and Robert Yuen were working seven days a week on their startup, creating software tools for architects. But they didn’t want that culture for their staff, so when they started hiring they created a four-day week, allowing employees to choose their day off. Fridays ease a long commute, but Wednesdays seem favorite.

“Mid-week is great to reset your brain while working on hard problems, so Thursday we can get back at it and have the mental strength to push forward,” explains Amaya, by email. “But largely the biggest benefit is getting a chance to work on side projects! It’s part of our culture at Monograph to have your own thing.”

Moe Amaya, founder of Monograoh, has implemented a four day week at his startup.
Moe Amaya, founder of Monograoh, has implemented a four day week at his startup.

They’re still a small team, employing up to eight people, but Amaya says it’s worked well enough that he has “no plans to change, potentially ever.” Software companies are usually efficient managers of time, he says, but “we choose to live the dream that says more efficiency should mean less work.”

And that’s unusual, but not unique. There’s growing interest worldwide in the idea of working four days, but still being productive enough to get paid for five.

The New Zealand trust company Perpetual Guardian made headlines worldwide last year for implementing a 32-hour week without reducing salaries. Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, recently shortened some municipal employees’ weeks by up to five hours in a trial, without affecting productivity.

Reykjavik, Iceland, has trialed shorter working weeks.
Reykjavik, Iceland, has trialed shorter working weeks.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

School districts from Colorado to Oklahoma have introduced four-day weeks to save money on food and transport, with teachers packing the same teaching hours into fewer but longer days. Even in famously workaholic Japan, some companies offer Monday mornings off.

And in Britain, labor organization Trades Union Congress is calling for a universal four-day week by the end of the century, arguing that any productivity gains from AI or automation should be used to the benefit of all.

For burnt-out professionals, parents keen to see their children, millennials protecting their mental health and even environmentalists seeking to reduce pollution from commuting, the idea of working smarter, not longer, appeals.

Yet there have been failures as well as successes. Back in 2015, the U.S. programming education company Treehouse declared it would have no managers and a four-day week. “Literally, I was, like, fuck the 40-hour workweek. We’re going to work 32 hours, because who says we can’t, right? Because we write the rules,’” founder Ryan Carson recalled last year in a GrowthLab interview. But over time, he changed his mind.

“It created a lack of work ethic in me,” he said, adding “it actually was a terrible thing.” First, the company introduced middle managers, then in 2016 it suspended the four-day week. Carlson himself now puts in 65-hour weeks, arguing that “I think you can work smarter, but I don’t think you can not work harder. You’ve got to do both.”

But is that true for everyone?

Three in four workers would ideally work fewer than five days if they could, according to research across eight countries, including America, published last year by the Workforce Institute, a think tank attached to technology company Kronos Incorporated.

The report didn’t ultimately advocate a 32-hour week for all because as executive director Joyce Maroney tells HuffPost, “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all model.” But amid stiff competition for talent, she thinks employers should be open to new thinking, especially in careers where home working isn’t realistic. “The responsibility of employers is to get clarity; what are achievable goals for our firm, how can we help people balance their physical wellness and needs out of work with productivity goals?” That’s particularly true, she argues, for a “sandwich generation” juggling childcare and elderly parents.

Aidan Harper of the London-based 4 Day Week campaign, which advocates for shorter working hours, says younger couples keen to split childcare and paid work more equitably are also driving the change. “Younger men want to spend time with their kids; more women want to have a career. It’s about redistributing full-time work between the genders and redistributing unpaid labor within the home.”

But he also thinks the banking crash, sluggish pay growth and insecurity of the gig economy are fuelling a broader sense that “there’s something wrong with the way work operates.”

And then there’s the growing suspicion, encapsulated in David Graeber’s bestseller Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, that many modern jobs have little real value. Harper adds, “If there’s this very widespread sense of dissatisfaction with work, combine that with the fact that one in four sick days off work is attributable to overwork and you have the conditions in society (for) the idea we should working less.”

Such changes have happened before. Six-day weeks were routine in the U.S. and Europe until the beginning of the 20th century. Famously, Henry Ford increased productivity in 1914 by cutting down to an eight-hour day while doubling wages. Change spread thanks to pressure from the organized labor movement but also the Great Depression, when employers sought to spread scarce work around.

The leading option for cutting the average American man’s 40.8-hour week (or the average woman’s 36.2 hours) now, however, is enabling people to produce the same amount in less time. In practice, that means automating or ditching time-wasting activities to focus on what matters. “Look at your work and ask your people what would it take to carve an hour off,” advises Maroney. “That doesn’t mean every idea people come up with is going to be brilliant, but people who do the job every day have a better sense of it.”

Lose the hours spent on pointless meetings, plowing through email or (be honest) gossiping, and most people probably “work” in the strict sense less than they think. Almost half those in the Workforce Institute study reckoned that, if left uninterrupted, they could complete their job in less than five hours a day.

“The thing I found especially valuable was that it made workers think about what they actually do, and what the most important parts of the job are.”

- Jarrod Haar, professor of human resources management

It was a Christmas break spent reading about the complex relationship between working hours and efficiency that motivated Perpetual Guardian’s founder Andrew Barnes to experiment with a shorter week. His only caveat was the same amount of work had to get done.

Jarrod Haar, professor of human resources management at Auckland’s University of Technology, was given free access to study Barnes’s staff as they figured out what could be dropped to fit 40-hours work into 32.

“One team said they used to have a same two-hour meeting every Monday. They now have a 30-minute meeting every two weeks. There’s a really good indication of what you could do differently if you had the power,” he recalls.

“The thing I found especially valuable was that it made workers think about what they actually do, and what the most important parts of the job are,” he added.

Unsurprisingly, he found work-life balance improved, with surveys of 120 workers before and after the trial identifying more time spent with families, playing sports and studying. They also reported higher life satisfaction, lower stress and an increased sense that the company cared about their welfare.

More unexpectedly, staff reported lower perceived demands from work despite theoretically working more intensively to maintain the same performance, plus more helpful behavior among colleagues. Downsides included problems covering absence and illness.

Despite what Haar calls some pushback from the board, last year Perpetual Guardian made its four-day week permanent – although staff may be asked to work five days at exceptionally busy periods. Around 50 companies have expressed interest in following suit.

The biggest obstacle to American firms doing so is cultural, says Monograph’s Amaya. “If you have a deeply held belief in the American way of doing business, it’s not going to work. You have to commit to having a more balanced lifestyle and enjoying the process along the way. While progress will move a bit slower, you have more time for reflection, make better long-term decisions, and have happy, more productive employees.”

For parents, working fewer days allows them to spend more time with their children.
For parents, working fewer days allows them to spend more time with their children.
Westend61 via Getty Images

Haar’s hunch is that this model suits industries with predictable workflow and some administrative slack in the system. “If you have a workplace where the workers are run ragged, and the default is you can’t get through your work even in five days, I doubt this would be very effective,” he says.

“Could you do it in a hospital, say? That’s probably one (where) there’s not enough fat in the system.” If so, then it may not help some of the most highly stressed workers.

But it also may not suit people who really love their jobs. Haar himself sometimes works six days a week, because “I get to do lots of stuff I really, really like.” And even though Monograph’s staff all work a four-day week, Amaya admits to struggling to cut his hours back himself as he builds his business. Interestingly, Workforce Institute found 27 percent of Americans would work five days even if they didn’t have to.

For those not yet ready for a dramatic change, there’s still scope for chipping away at the workweek. Maroney cites Kronos’s unlimited vacation scheme, allowing staff members to take as much leave as they like as long as they agree with managers how they’ll manage their workload. She says annual leave rose only by 2.5 days because staff opted to shave off small, regular slivers of time rather than take extra vacations.

“It’s more that they leave early once a week to go coach the kids’ game, or visit their elderly mother,” she said. It’s no revolution, but it’s a start.

CORRECTION: this piece was amended on January 14 to correct the name of the Workforce Institute at Kronos, which was previously misnamed the Workforce Initiative.

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