In Praise of the Four-Day Week
In 1995 I was in Dublin working my first job after getting my Masters. I was writing what was then called computer-based training, which would grow up to become online education. I was helping to produce courseware to teach people how to use Microsoft Office products, which even then were bloated and less than intuitive.
Outside of office hours, I was also trying to break into freelance journalism, contributing arts and features pieces to the Irish Times newspaper and other publications. Dublin is full of good writers — you could throw a stone into any pub and it would hit someone better than than me — so it was a struggle, but I really enjoyed crafting 800 smart words about a TV show or movie that would be completely forgotten the day after the paper came out.
The day job wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing, but the steady pay was welcome, and my fellow employees were a nice bunch to hang around with, and I even enjoyed the bike ride across town to get to work. But after a few months there, I was being worn down and couldn’t find the time or inclination to work on as much freelance work as I wanted. So I had an idea that seemed to make sense to me, and I was too young to know how unusual a request it might be at the time.I asked to have every Friday off (and take 80% of my salary).
I was smart enough to ask straight after a favourable performance review, and for whatever reason they said yes, for a trial period.
The new arrangement worked out brilliantly, and I ended up staying at the company for much longer than I would have otherwise. Aware that I didn’t want to leave any of my colleagues in the lurch while I was off, I was definitely more than 80% as productive as I had been, and when taxes and the small amount of money I got from my extra freelance work were taken into account, I ended up with more than 80% of my former income.
And I got Fridays to myself. I’d go to press screenings for new films, work on pitching stories, and drift around Dublin bookshops, cafés and bars (a regular afternoon favourite habit was to sit reading the paper in the Stag’s Head pubarmed with a coffee and a gin and tonic). I had a long weekend every week — I was happy, I appreciated the great gift my employers had given me, and I returned to the day job every Monday rested and ready to work hard.
Not Working Just Works
I’m not the only one to discover that four-day weeks have many benefits. This recent excellent video from The Atlantic shows the business and personal benefits of the approach at Treehouse (ironically an online education firm).
Online project management tool Basecamp work four-day weeks over the summer, and their experience of productivity is the same as mine:
“In general, the same amount of stuff gets done in four days than in five, mostly because when you have less time, you tend to compress stuff out that doesn’t matter,” says Basecamp CEO Jason Fried in a Fast Company interview. “We don’t feel like we’re losing a lot of output; maybe 5%.”
It’s not just small firms — KPMG and tax services firm Ryan are two multinationals who have adopted similar flexible approaches. The same Fast Company article reports that after they started four-day weeks, Ryan’s employee turnover rate dropped from 30% to 11%, revenue and profits almost doubled, client satisfaction scores reached an all-time high, and the firm has received multiple “best place to work” awards.
For a time the state of Utah put workers on a compressed work schedule, with staff working four 10-hour days with every Friday off. The Guardian looked at the results:
Eight out of 10 employees liked the four-day week and wanted it to continue. Nearly two-thirds said it made them more productive and many said it reduced conflict at home and work. Only 3% said it made childcare harder. Workplaces across the state reported higher staff morale and lower absenteeism.
40 Hours or 32?
Based on my own experience, and that of Basecamp and Treehouse, I’d say it’s worth just pulling the band-aid off all in one go and only working 32 hours. It’s debatable if there’s really any productivity benefit in the extra hours — it’s filled with what Jason Fried calls the stuff ‘that doesn’t matter’.
So it’s good for employees and good for the organization. It works for tech firms on crazy deadlines, large consulting firms and state government. And why aren’t we doing this, already? As with a reluctance to adopt remote working, the reasons we’re still clinging to the old ways aren’t that great, but what is great is that more and more organizations are showing the vision required to embrace the four-day week.