How to implement a four-day work week

Putting theory into practice

Abigail Angus
May 30 · 8 min read
Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

In the last article, I talked about why we should consider making the switch to a four-day week, to improve our focus and productivity, but also our happiness and health. However, it’s not always obvious how you go from deciding a four-day week is a good idea to making it a reality. If you run, manage a workforce in, or work for, an organisation that operates five (or more) days per week, just throwing an extra day off into the mix is easier said than done, right? In this article, I’ll talk about what you need to take into account, what mindsets need to change, and what systems you might want to implement to help make the change from five days to four.

Buy-in, scope and logistics

To make any kind of organisational change, you need buy-in. You need this from the people with the power to make the change, and from the people it will affect. While you may be convinced of the positive effects of fewer hours and greater effort, others may still be in the dark. You need to convince management and your colleagues that they don’t need to be working all the time for the organisation to be productive, successful, and profitable. That maximum hours doesn’t equal maximum output. I’ve written before about the benefits of taking time off, and why stopping for a breather actually increases productivity rather than limits it. You’re going to need top-level endorsement, so unless that’s you, think about putting a case together to convince your boss. There’s a lot of research out there on the business benefits of focusing on productivity and engagement rather than hours or days worked, and in the coming weeks we’ll be looking at some examples at the national and organisational levels to see how new ideas about work-life are being applied in practice, and the results of this.

Be optimistic about this — real-life examples suggest that the four-day week is a popular concept at all levels of business, if the conditions are right. For example, David Stone, Chief Executive of the MRL Consulting Group, an international technology recruitment firm, recently introduced a four-day working week into his company, an idea he’d been interested in for a number of years but implemented after a suggestion made by one of his team. David recalls feeling apprehensive ahead of the meeting in which he announced the proposed six-month trial period to his staff, not knowing how they would react. He needn’t have worried — “I think they were shocked, they were ecstatic, and jumping up and down with enthusiasm and excitement.” Watch the full interview with David here.

Once you’ve got support for the idea of a more flexible working week, you need to think about how your organisation operates, what its business needs are, its clients’ needs, and employees’ needs. It might be difficult, or inappropriate, for all areas, departments, and staff to move from five days to four. Depending on your industry, it may not be feasible to just scratch a day out of the week and be done with it. You need to think about your suppliers, your competitors, your customers — business is business, after all. You can’t dismantle and reconstruct an entire business model and infrastructure overnight — indeed, you may not want to. A four-day week may not be for everyone. While for some it might solve their childcare or commuting woes, and make life ten times easier, for others, it might have the opposite effect. Indeed, not everyone works five days a week to start with; how will this affect part-time staff, and the relationships between full-time and part-time workers? You need to think about how the business works, and the way the staff is constituted — is there one day a week that would suit a particular department to have off, or to work remotely? Are there any days that are a total ‘no-go’ for certain roles or areas? How many people work in each department? If there are five or more, could they pick a day each so the department is always staffed? Ultimately, if you can accommodate holiday and part-time work, there will be a way forward. The biggest barrier to overcome will likely be attitude and understanding. Of work, effort, productivity, motivation, and, most importantly, value.

Forget about hours

For this to work long-term, for a real paradigm shift to occur, we need to abandon the idea of an hourly rate. While it has some practical use (particularly for freelancers) when quoting, costing and planning work, the idea that employee value can be measured as a rate per hour, as if their physical presence is a commodity that they’re selling and their primary contribution to the business, is archaic and rooted in a concept of work that emerged in an era of largely manual labour. Whilst this still applies in some sectors, the modern business landscape is multi-levelled and complex. In a world of a highly skilled, trained, and professional workforce, the concept of an hourly rate, of salaries calculated based on the assumption of a 37.5-hour full-time week, fails to capture the dynamism and scope of contributions made by employees to the business they work for.

This, I believe, is the real barrier to the four-day week. The full-time/part-time, wage labour mentality is so deeply ingrained in the structures and psyches of the business world. You can’t try and implement a four-day week without rejecting and rebuilding this, or you’ll be forced to try and fit the same number of hours over fewer days — a four-day week doesn’t sound so appealing when that means working four ten-hour days. And it defeats the whole objective. In the professional sphere, the concept of an hourly rate places the emphasis on the least valuable component of work — time. You don’t need to have frittered away an hour on Facebook to understand that time at work can be utterly devoid of value, but chances are you have. Regularly.

If you’re paying an hourly rate or a salary based on a set number of hours, then while you may think you’re paying an individual to do a job, you’re not — you’re simply paying for their time, when really you want to be paying for their effort. You pay them for X hours a week, and they’re yours for those hours — it’s then up to you to ensure they’re spending those hours doing what you want them to do. Or you could be paying someone £15 an hour to sit on Facebook, read the news, chat to their colleagues. So you end up paying managers and supervisors for their time, so they can make sure you’re getting value out of the staff one rung down. But then you have to supervise them. And so on, ad infinitum. Do you see the logic there? Nope, me neither.

Let’s go back a step — you think you’re paying someone X amount to do a job, so why are you paying them for the hours you think, expect, or estimate it will take them to do it? Pay them for the job, not the hours, and you can bet they’ll do it in half the time. And if they don’t, it’s not your problem.

CEO David Stone agrees that there is nothing tying us to a five-day work life in the modern age. “How many hours a day do you actually honestly waste, chatting about football, chatting about TV, about what you’re going to have for lunch, scrolling through Twitter or Facebook? I think we’re all guilty of that. If you can tweak it, make a few adjustments, a little bit more outcomes-based productivity, then I don’t see why it shouldn’t work.” This isn’t just pie in the sky speculation, either; David has put his money where his mouth is and implemented a four-day week with the exact same working day, same pay, and same benefits as when staff were working five days. As we saw earlier, his staff are ecstatic about it — and several months in, the company is still up and running!

To make this work, we need to abandon the idea that full-time work (and a full-time salary) requires five days or 37.5 hours a week. Whilst it might sound dramatic, revolutionary even, it’s important to remember that this was the whole point of industrialisation, of technology, and innovation. We’ve spent all this time and effort working hard to make our lives easier in the future, so why are we sticking so steadfastly to full-time work now that we don’t need to? What is the end goal of efficiency, if not to not to spend more time living our lives, spending time with those we love, pursuing passions and pleasure, being better people? The economist Keynes predicted we’d be working 15 hours a week by now. He wasn’t alone in this. In 1956, Nixon envisaged a four-day week in the ‘not too distant future’ — well, 1956 seems pretty distant to me now.

Logistics and technology

So assuming you’ve got people on board, you’ve thought about how you might implement a new working pattern in your particular organisation or industry, and a paradigm shift has occurred in the way you think about labour, value, and productivity, you’re halfway there, but you’ve still got some work to do to get things up and running.

As with most proposed changes, if you can make it easy, it’s a more attractive prospect. If it sounds like it’s going to add workload, stress, and admin time, you’re putting up barriers. If the organisation has a lot of departments of different sizes and is staffed by a mix of part-time and full-time staff, and they all want different days off — maybe they want a different day off every week — it can start to sound like a logistical nightmare and your boss, HR manager, or whoever is trying to get their head around implementing this, will be slowly backing from you with fear in their eyes.

If you’re going to make the shift, you’re going to need watertight systems, to make sure everything keeps running as it should, the ball doesn’t get dropped, and Sandra doesn’t get an angry phone call from her team at 10am on Monday, or turn up to a locked office on Friday morning. Technology is your friend here. Returning to the point made earlier — all these years we’ve been squirrelling away for 37.5 hours each and every week, we’ve actually come up with some pretty great things that can *whisper it* make our lives easier! It’s a fact of modern life that, whatever you want to do, “There’s an app for that.” And the four-day week project is no different. There are a whole host of apps, software, and solutions out there designed to aid productivity, solve logistical dilemmas, and make running a business overall that bit easier.

The dream of the four-day week, first imagined all those years ago, is now starting to become a reality. We now have all the tools and knowledge required, we just need to let go of our outdated beliefs about wage labour, and progress our understanding of what work means in the modern world and the role it plays in our lives.

Leave Dates helps you to manage staff holidays and other absences, whatever working week you operate. It gives you total visibility of who is working when, which is vital for all businesses, especially when you are operating a four-day or other non-standard working week.

Leave Dates

Leave Dates is an online leave management system which makes life easier.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade