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Future of Work

How to implement a 4-day workweek for the whole organization

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Could a four-day workweek make your organization happier and more productive? Entrepreneur Andrew Barnes, co-architect of the New Zealand nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, explored the topic at the recent Work/23 symposium, hosted by MIT Sloan Management Review.

A four-day workweek has significant benefits at work and at home, said Barnes, who published “The 4 Day Week” in 2020.

Barnes’s nonprofit studied 91 companies, comprising 3,500 employees, that participated in a pilot program in Australia, Canada, Ireland, the U.S., and the U.K. Results showed that productivity and performance increased under a four-day workweek.

Revenue rose by 35%, hiring increased, and absenteeism decreased. Workers said they felt less burned out, spent more time exercising, and experienced higher life and job satisfaction. Men spent 22% more time on child care, and both men and women got an average of 42 more minutes of sleep per week.

In his presentation, Barnes explained how his own trust company, Perpetual Guardian, was able to reduce work hours.

22%

In a pilot test of a four-day workweek among 3,500 employees worldwide, men spent 22% more time on child care.

Barnes tasked his staff with designing a four-day week wherein they would meet their existing obligations on the same salary but with a 20% reduction in the number of hours worked each week. After successfully implementing the plan, Perpetual Guardian found that employees were more productive at work and happier at home.

Barnes said this structure works because even high-performing companies have room for improvement in efficiency.

“Even lean companies can find a better way, because otherwise you’re saying [that you’ve] reached the pinnacle of human achievement in the way in which you’re working in your company today,” Barnes said.

When it comes to the details of implementing a four-day workweek, Barnes abides by the 100-80-100 rule: 100% of normal pay, 80% of typical work hours, 100% productivity.

“We don’t recommend keeping the working week at 40 hours and trying to cram it into four days. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that in fact the productivity in those extra hours is not very high at all,” Barnes said. “We’re looking for organizations to come on a journey to reduce the overall number of hours that their employees work” — by optimizing productivity.

Wondering whether a four-day workweek might be right for your firm? Here’s how to test the waters.

Get employee buy-in. “Engage your own employees. This is not a process that you can literally go top down, lay the ground rules out, and say, ‘You must do things this way,’” Barnes said.

Instead, first identify subtle, manageable ways to help workers be more productive: Enter a trial period in which fewer meetings are scheduled or employees aren’t expected to answer emails after a certain hour. And ask your employees for ideas about how to reduce the number of hours worked, because this shift requires team agreement.

“Empower your people to come up with the best ideas, because in essence, you’re asking them to identify all of those little things that prevent them being as productive as they might be — and, often, they’re very small,” Barnes said.

Cultivate trust. Remind your staff that reduced hours are a good thing. Make it clear that salary and benefits won’t change and that this is a companywide pivot. Otherwise, alarm bells might go off when employees hear the words “work reduction”: Will they earn less due to fewer hours?

“What you don’t want them to hear is that pay is going to go down and you’re going to want [them] to do more with less,” Barnes warned. “This is about finding a better way. … Once you’ve implemented the four-day week correctly, it benefits everybody: Leaders need time to think. They need to recharge their batteries, as well as employees. The benefits apply from the top to the bottom of an organization, regardless of role or responsibility.”

Barnes’s research backs up that claim.

“In the United States, we found that people valued the four-day week so much, they said they’d need an extra 10% to 50% pay to return to a five-day workweek. In the U.K. results, we found that 71% of employees had reduced levels of burnout, and by the end of the trial, 39% were less stressed. These are significant numbers,” he said.

Don’t be overly prescriptive. “We’ve seen people in the pilot programs where they’ve been absolutely prescriptive: ‘You must do this. You must take this time off. You must follow this procedure.’ That doesn’t work,” Barnes said.

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Instead, the goal is to identify barriers to productivity — for each individual and team — and remove them, making fewer hours viable. Maybe some teams have too many meetings; maybe others need better information-sharing techniques. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all process, Barnes said.

Share ideas across the organization. A four-day shift requires universal buy-in, and a collaborative team mentality is essential.

“If I waste your time so you can’t do your job effectively, what that also means is that we fail as a group. This is really about people working together,” Barnes said. “What we’ve seen is far stronger team cohesion, collaboration, and idea sharing, because I need you to succeed in order for me to get the time off that I want.”

As the organization begins to experiment, be sure to encourage the sharing of ideas across departments. Barnes recommends collaboration sessions, where people explain what worked in their individual departments, to establish best practices.

Keep good records. The devil is in the details. Some companies might need to report documentation to board members; others simply might need to benchmark outcomes for their own records or for legal reasons.

“By having independent qualitative and quantitative research running alongside the pilot programs,” Barnes said, “what you’re able to do is give the objective outcome to both employee, management, your board, your CEO — and, ultimately, your customers and your shareholders.”

Read next: 4 ways leaders can detox their corporate culture

For more info Tracy Mayor Senior Associate Director, Editorial (617) 253-0065