If like most people, you work five days a week then you may be wondering why this working pattern is so baked into our culture and societal norms, and what is to stop us from working fewer days each week?

One common argument from those that wish to see us all work fewer days is that the length of time we need to do our jobs tends to expand to the time available, a hypothesis famously espoused by British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson (this is referred to as ‘Parkinson’s Law’).  Hence if we have fewer days, many of us could relatively easily complete the same number of work-related tasks.  But is this really true, and is it time for us to switch to a four-day working week?

Four-day working week trial in Iceland judged an “overwhelming success”

Several trials have now been conducted around the world on four-day working weeks, including in New Zealand, Spain, and Iceland.  The Iceland study, which took place between 2015 and 2019, was a joint effort between the Reykjavík City Council and the national government involving over 2,500 workers (around 1% of the countries working population).  Significantly, the study took place across a range of public sector settings, including in education, medicine, and social care, in an effort to show that four-day working weeks work in several areas of the public sector.  In most cases, participants switched from a 40 hour week, five days a week, to a 35 – 36 hour working week, four days a week, for the same rate of pay.  As a result of the study, researchers concluded participants:

  • felt less stressed and less at risk of burnout
  • said their health and work-life balance had improved
  • had more time to spend with families and for hobbies

Will Stronge, the Director of Research at Autonomy, an independent, progressive think tank that focuses on the future of work and economic planning, says, “This study shows that the world’s largest-ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success. It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks – and lessons can be learned for other governments”.

Will a four-day working week work in the private sector?

Unilever is currently trialling a four-day working week in New Zealand for one year.  According to Nick Bangs, managing director of Unilever New Zealand, their focus is now on performance rather than time and helping employees to get the same amount of work done in less time for the same salary.  Chris Bailey, the author of the books “The Productivity Project” and “Hyperfocus” argues that to get more done in less time, energy and attention are needed, in addition to firm deadlines.  While the NZ study is not yet complete, other multi-national businesses will be keenly looking at the Unilever study results to see how workable a four-day working week is in the corporate world.

Final words

The ongoing pandemic has already shown businesses and organisations of all types and sizes around the world that employees can work in completely new ways and not impact their operations and performance.  In many cases, employees are often much happier working mainly from home, with some face to face time where needed.  With several progressive governments now banging the proverbial drum for four-day working weeks, it is highly conceivable that this will become the next shift in how we work in the coming decade.