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The Four-Day Week Is A Pipe Dream—We Need To Stop Talking About It

Microsoft recently announced a pilot project that championed a four-day workweek. The result? Increased productivity, increased levels of employee happiness, and a nod in the direction of big companies making work a better place to be.

Conducted in Japan, where work pressures are some of the highest in the world, it is understandable on the surface why there is a push for such dramatic change. Mental health is slowly becoming less stigmatized, and employee control over work-life balance is borderline mainstream for a lot of big organizations. For example, in the legal sector, some strides are being made; power-firm Kirkland & Ellis employed wellness officers, but in other firms, this does not apply to all staff and those supporting fee-earners are still under significant pressure with little support available to them.

But the experiment is not a great test case. It was conducted in August during a typically quiet period for most people. And there is little information about the sample group – were they in business-facing roles, where a four-day workweek would have been more manageable? Or, were they in client-facing and service-delivery roles, where there would have been more inherent challenges to pulling off that model? Furthermore, productivity was only measured as sales per employee, but what if the sales team consisted of only 1% of the overall sample size? Were their workloads greater to pull up the whole team and make the initiative happen?

Given that around 30% of revenue in the United States is generated from service industries, it is questionable whether a four-day week will be anything more than a marketing exercise by big companies to give a perception of progress. There are, however, key parts of Microsoft Japan’s initiative that companies can take inspiration from to increase productivity and employee satisfaction.

Increasing Efficiency

The study in Japan heavily championed increased productivity through the use of technology, wellness initiatives, and short meetings. Staff was encouraged to rely heavily on virtual and remote meetings to avoid wasting time moving between appointments and reduce idle chit chat in the corridors. They also reduced waste consumption by decreasing their printing and electricity usage. All of this to earn Friday off.

Would it not be better for an organization to make these strides as part of its natural development, without dangling a carrot of freedom from work in front of its employees? It should be the norm to encourage people to use technology to interact, to hold shorter meetings, and to go paperless to reduce waste and clutter. The focus should not be on taking these steps to make employees more productive under a guise of flexibility; rather, it should be used to give employees time savers so that they can do what they want with the time saved.

Improving Happiness

Employee engagement and happiness is measured by several factors, including connections with colleagues, energy in their working environment and how employees embrace change. It is not an easy measurement to gauge and act on, given much of the data collected is based on an individual's feelings and perceptions, but is nonetheless useful. The richness of the data allows organizations to analyze not only the various aspects of their policies and culture, which can impact retention and productivity rates, but also uncover external factors of an employee’s life and common themes that impact the employee experience.

In the case of Microsoft Japan, employees were able to increase their sports and leisure activity, which can positively impact health and well-being, but an extra day off is not required to achieve this increase. Furthermore, only 20% of Microsoft Japan’s employees took the opportunity to travel (i.e., go on vacation) during these longer weekends, which was still only measured as domestic travel and could include visiting family or other chores. If the intent of giving Fridays off was to encourage employees to get away from work and refresh, then that percentage should have been a lot higher, particularly in the height of summer when, according to the results, 55% of employees took a summer vacation – although there is no indication of what this figure was before the study. 

Organizations can look at other ways to encourage employees to recharge and refresh. Aside from offering as much flexibility for staff where possible, investing in wellness programs such as gym reimbursement, yoga and meditation sessions, or simply making healthy food choices available for employees to access are significant first steps. Investment in employee health and wellness leads to positive engagement from a workforce in an organization. Greater recognition that an employer cares for its employees has a positive and strong impact on retention and happiness rates within organizations.

Living for the Weekend

Long weekends are truly amazing. People feel genuinely recharged and refreshed – but until the whole world moves toward a three-day standard weekend, those who do have Friday off may not feel the full effects of the perk. The emphasis here on having Friday off naturally works well in August when things are generally quieter and more relaxed because of the summer months. It does not take into account various situations that are likely to hinder an actual four-day workweek and, in turn, put more pressure and emphasis on the employee picking up the slack.

For client-facing, service industry professionals, an urgent email arriving on Friday afternoon from a high-profile client is not likely to get ignored. While some flexibility can come from this model (as typically when things are quieter, there is more ‘downtime’ available), so much depends on company culture, personal drivers and team structure. Somebody will always be willing to get ahead and pick up the work, or else the client could take their business elsewhere.

In most situations where a four-day week exists, companies still have a rotating group of employees in the office to service the Friday work. In this setup, the flexibility is taken away from those employees who have to work a schedule around an assigned Friday and therefore decrease an employee’s flexibility overall. Companies should focus on policies and practices that foster freedom and flexibility and that center-around the individual, rather than an all-encompassing policy that may actually be limiting for some. This allows the organization to retain a stronger culture while simultaneously increasing productivity.

A four-day workweek is great in theory – providing an opportunity to increase employee happiness and rest in a well-meaning way. However, the reality of our modern work environment makes it very difficult to pull it off effectively. We are more connected than ever, and the four-day workweek is contingent on the presumption that everybody will want the same day off and the whole world will switch off and adapt. That is not the reality of modern business.

Organizations should take a bigger-picture view of how to naturally increase happiness. In order to truly affect change and give people more downtime to recharge and be more productive, employees need the power of flexibility to make their own choices that fit their lifestyle – whether that be a few extra hours per day or a whole day that suits their schedule.

 

More Articles by Nathan Peart 

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