Is it time to consider the four-day workweek?

The concept is attracting tech firms with its promise of a better work-life balance and increased productivity.

By Finbarr Toesland

When Art Shectman first brought up the idea of transitioning to a four-day workweek to his 50-plus employees, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “The vast majority of people were stoked—they were really excited to have a three-day weekend,” says Shectman, CEO of software and data engineering company Elephant Ventures.

Headquartered in New York City, Elephant Ventures has several offices around the world, with their Philippines location having implemented a compressed workweek for about five years. “They were already working an extended four-day schedule to give a bit more overlap to our customers in the U.S. time zone,” explains Shectman. “We always had seen somewhat of a boosted productivity level out of our Philippines office.”

But it wasn’t until the pandemic impacted conventional work schedules in early 2020 that Shectman decided to pilot a four-day week across the entire business. “In the middle of the pandemic, with everyone being basically locked up in our apartments in New York, we said, ‘You know what? It’s super manageable to do the four-day pilot, so let’s try it and see what happens.'”

Successful transition

More than a year after Elephant Ventures launched the pilot, the change has been made permanent as the benefits have become clear: Staff reports a better work-life balance and improved morale. Productivity is up, as well. It’s too soon to tell by how much, but when the Philippines office moved to the condensed work week, productivity increased by an estimated 20-30%.

Elephant Ventures team on a Zoom call. Photo courtesy of Elephant Ventures.

The company compresses their 40 hours into Monday through Thursday, typically working 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with flexibility offered to staff who need to start work later or finish up earlier.

“There’s a magical feeling at about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday nights when you’ve been off for two days your body and then your brain kicks in thinking work is the next day and you realize you’re off tomorrow as well—you just have this feeling of elation and joy,” says Shectman.

As can be expected with any major business change, closely consulting staff on their concerns and getting their buy-in was key. “It can’t be, ‘Everybody convert or you’re fired.’ Some people could be a primary caregiver, have a child with special needs or have newborns that need special scheduling—you have to be able to accommodate the needs of the individual,” Shectman explains.

There’s a magical feeling at about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday nights when you’ve been off for two days your body and then your brain kicks in thinking work is the next day and you realize you’re off tomorrow as well—you just have this feeling of elation and joy.

—Art Shectman, Elephant Ventures, CEO

Utilizing technology has been central to making the shift to a four-day workweek successful. Asynchronous communication tools like Slack have been indispensable, in addition to other collaboration tools that enable the distributed staff at Elephant Ventures to work together seamlessly.

“The surprise tool that helps us the most is probably the calendar,” says Shectman. “When we first converted, everyone’s calendar was clogged up with all kinds of stuff because people were scrambling to do the same number of meetings they were doing in five days, but in four days.” Getting on top of meeting overload helped free up much-needed time to spend on other projects.

By following the PAL (purpose, agenda, limit) concept for meetings, staff shortened meetings wherever possible, only scheduled meetings during a daily three-hour time slot and removed attendants that weren’t needed. This allowed the team to secure time for deep work and push efficiency to the max.

Growing interest

From crowdfunding website Kickstarter to software company Wildbit, an increasing number of firms across the U.S. have embraced the benefits of a four-day workweek. For example, after Wildbit piloted the four-day week, they found staff were producing higher-quality work and reported an improved work-life balance.

While a number of companies had adopted a four-day workweek long before the emergence of COVID-19, the change in work practices brought about by the pandemic may have convinced more businesses that the shift is a viable option.

“Almost every company had to think about redesigning their work as a result of the pandemic—it was, in essence, a huge experiment,” says Bill Castellano, professor of human resource management at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

Before the pandemic, shifting to a reduced workweek wasn’t a top agenda item for most companies. The last year has shown a lot of firms that more flexible schedules can work. “They’re seeing that you’re able to attract a much larger workforce when you provide that kind of flexibility,” Castellano adds.

Tech companies, in particular, have increasingly embraced the four-day workweek since the pandemic began. While a large part of the eagerness from employees to try a reduced week may be due to the benefit of a three-day weekend and a better work-life balance, but tech firms also widely report productivity gains.

Almost every company had to think about redesigning their work as a result of the pandemic—it was, in essence, a huge experiment.

—Bill Castellano, professor

Social media software company Buffer tested the four-day workweek in May 2020 to reduce the stress placed on burnt-out workers during the pandemic. After surveying their employees, business leaders found that staff were less stressed, happier, more productive and felt their autonomy and flexibility had increased.

“People were tied to their computer and accessible virtually 24/7—a lot of people were burning out, working full-time from home. These hybrid schedules, I think, are going to be a win-win for both companies and employees,” Castellano explains.

The spread of automation tools for businesses continues to reduce the time employees spend on monotonous tasks, allowing them to focus on more essential business projects. From using chatbots to automate customer support to deploying robotic process automation technologies to speed up employee onboarding and operations management and even logistics and supply chain management, countless routine elements of jobs can now be automated.

Castellano believes these technological tools have fundamentally changed the way work is conducted. “The progress that has been made with technology has really enabled us to move to this new type of work schedule. If we experienced this pandemic, even as recently as 10 years ago, we would have been in a very difficult situation.”

If not now, when?

In 2018, Andrew Barnes tried a four-day workweek at his statutory supervisor and trustee company Perpetual Guardian. Not only did independent research find that staff engagement scores went up by 40%, stress levels fell 15% and productivity improved by 25%, but this experiment led Barnes to set up 4 Day Week Global, a campaign to encourage businesses to pilot their own four-day weeks.

While staff members were receptive to the idea of a slimmed-down workweek, it was a tough sell to executives. “The leadership team was broadly against this shift because some had the view that working longer equals working harder,” explains Barnes, who sits on the advisory board of the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford. “But once the trial got underway and the results started to speak for themselves, everybody got on board.”

As parts of the economy slowly emerge from the pandemic, now could be the right time to embrace this shift. Barnes believes companies that don’t try this new way of working will be left behind. “The biggest risk is your biggest competitor does this first.”

Lead photo by Eric Rothermel/Unsplash