We’re programmed to believe that working longer and harder begets great achievement. But what if working less is the real key to success? Some employers find a four-day workweek increases productivity and job satisfaction and helps retain all talented workers, not just the women who want to be with kids.
The notion of the four-day workweek was introduced in the 1950s by American labor union leader Walter Reuther, but workers — or, more specifically, bosses — have been slow to buy in. By most accounts, the American workweek is now at its most saturated: Nearly 86% of American men and 67% of women work more than 40 hours in any given week, in the name of productivity, financial necessity and, according to at least one study, happiness.
In her book “White Collar Sweatshop,” author Jill Andresky Fraser writes about a culture of American workers being on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even as salaries and benefits decrease. That’s because, despite the evidence, we’re programmed to believe that working longer and harder begets great achievement. But what if working less is the real key to success?
Many have argued for the four-day workweek, or flexible hours in general, as a way to retain talented female workers who might otherwise quit altogether in order to have children. Working mothers around the country routinely, and increasingly, negotiate four-day workweeks. In fact, 44% of female doctors now work four or fewer days a week, up from 29% in 2005.
But a four-day workweek isn’t beneficial to mothers alone — and it is beneficial. When Utah introduced four-day workweeks for many of its state employees in 2008, it boosted productivity and worker satisfaction. They reverted to the standard five-day week only three years later, because residents complained about not having access to services on Fridays.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, software CEO Jason Fried reported that the 32-hour, four-day workweek his company follows from May through October has resulted in an increase in productivity. “Better work gets done in four days than in five,” he wrote. It makes sense: When there’s less time to work, there’s less time to waste. And when you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. (Like sleep, quality work happens best when uninterrupted.)
Fried also reported that the four-day workweek had made it easier to recruit new talent and retain valuable staff — male and female.
There’s one caveat. Though unlikely to affect higher-ups, the four-day week tends to work best when the entire office is involved. One reason many employees may feel reluctant to take on a four-day week is because of the fear of “missing out” on access to the boss or to the flow of ideas and information.
There’s also the simple economics of the four-day week, as seen in Utah. When the lights are on four days instead of five, and employees need to make the commute two fewer times, costs are lowered.