Employee Engagement & Retention

Is a Four-Day Work Week The Way of the Future or a Pandemic Fad?

By Alexandra Frost

Last updated: Feb 15, 2023

A look inside how real business owners and workers use a shortened work week to combat burnout and maximize productivity.

I started my freelance business just months before the pandemic began, ultimately quitting my 9-to-5 job in the midst of shutdowns, sick kids and chaos. I worked feverishly to increase my income as a journalist and content creator, squeezing in stories while my four young sons napped. With an eye towards self-care, self-preservation and general burnout prevention, I cut my workday in nearly half, aiming for five-hour days.

Finally, my income stabilized, my business was thriving and I started to investigate how other freelancers and business owners were faring in their work-life balance for inspiration. Specifically, I wanted to know why on Fridays, when I was cramming in my last assignments before the weekend, some of the most admired freelancers I know were hiking, knitting, meditating and reading (at least according to their social media posts). After reaching out to my business coach, she casually said, “Oh yeah, tons of established freelancers I know have moved toward the Friday-free workweek.” Huh. Good to know.

A pandemic survival mechanism

One such freelance journalist, Kat Boogaard, who focuses on blog content for software companies and productivity/project management in the world of work, tried it herself. “My response to the pandemic was to pile my plate really full — it felt like something really tangible I could control,” she told The Org. Her moment of realization that it was completely unsustainable came when she forgot to help her son with a daycare art project they were supposed to do as a family. “Of course I’m in tears thinking I’m a terrible mom and I put work before him,” she recalled.

Like other work-from-home pandemic parents who own businesses, the secret to success might be figuring out how to maintain the kids’ daycare schedule if possible even on that day off to create actual kid-free time to do other tasks. Boogaard cleans out the fridge, works on personal projects and more. To do this, she had to let go of a major client she’d worked with that involved daily check-ins, including on that now-sacred Friday. “You just get to be a lot more intentional about what takes your time and energy,” she said, adding that she also swapped some projects for more lucrative opportunities to maximize her time.

Those who came before me

So, I “piloted” the 4 day work week for myself, committing to eliminating most work on Fridays, joining countless others around the world. For example, around 30 British companies joined a pilot program in collaboration with Autonomy, with support from Oxford University, Boston College and Cambridge University. Their ask is that companies maintain 100% productivity in 80% of the time working, without cutting pay (necessitating a wider shift to salary-based pay rather than hourly wages). While it might sound daunting, it’s based on multiple other successful pilots already demonstrating benefits, including Iceland’s specific pilot of around 1% of their workforce. Since its completion 86% of the country’s workforce has followed suit, piggybacking on the study’s data promising increased wellbeing, dramatic stress and burnout reduction, and in some cases, even higher productivity. The odds were in my favor that not only would this work, it might have a profound impact on my mental health.

Others promote the plan from an environmental impact lens: in addition to a reduction in employee burnout, which the World Health Organization started classifying as an occupational phenomenon in 2019, the four-day workweek has serious environmental implications. If the trend continues, the Platform London report in May 2021 projected a 21% reduction in carbon footprint by 2025.

How it started

The first Friday I planned to take off came with a flurry of schedule rearranging — after all, five days of work now had to somehow fit into four, right? So, I started working faster. I eliminated unnecessary phone scrolling breaks, which I thought were good zone-outs between concentrated high-focus tasks. I made plans on Friday to hold myself to it: sort the kids’ school papers, have lunch with my dad, read one of the dozen books I hadn’t cracked open since the pandemic started, do laundry, meal plan and spend quality time with my infant. A casual Friday. Needless to say, my expectations were a bit too high, and what really happened the first day was a mix of trying not to glance at my email, tidying up at home, and realizing I’d need a real plan to make this new schedule work. Boogaard says my strategy to fit all my current work in, and also to overplan Friday, isn’t the way to go.

Boogaard hopes other business owners will start with an audit of which clients and projects currently “fill their tank” versus deplete it, and what you could streamline or get rid of. “The biggest thing you want to avoid is just crunching your time but keeping the same amount.”

Getting intentional with the Friday plan

It seemed my next step was both to get more intentional with planning my week, taking Boogaard’s advice to streamline processes, and also to create a plan for Friday itself, even if sometimes that plan was to actively do nothing.

I looked to other business owners to explore the endless Friday opportunities, including the founder and CEO of scavenger hunt app GooseChase, Andrew Cross. They named it “Flock Fridays,” one of their many punny bird terms, and Cross crowdsourced for me to find how his team was using their time. Here were some of their answers:

  • “You might find me using the day to focus on self-care, getting a jump start on weekend chores, diving into a hobby/project I’ve been working on, or connecting with family. It’s been entirely game-changing to know I have that extra day to focus on things that bring balance and fulfillment!”
  • “I can take the day to pick up my daughter from university, skipping an ugly drive in rush-hour traffic, and usually getting an extra day with her.”
  • “Invaluable time with my baby niece, and also being able to lend her mom a hand on a day where she's normally on her own. And frankly, quality of life goes way up when you're not stuck in traffic for hours on Friday evenings.”
  • “During wedding planning it was a life-saver.”
  • “I use the day for my personal to-do list and hockey practice planning for the week.”

Their responses inspired me to look at Fridays in an alternating fashion — sometimes as a catch-up day for tasks, sometimes as a focused effort on quality time with family. So on my next free Friday, I pulled my son out of daycare and spent some one-on-one time with him, a treasure in a family with four kids. This immediately upped my motivation to continue the pilot for more moments like those.

Guidelines to piloting your own four-day work week

Stopping all Friday business interactions could be potentially detrimental to some types of companies, and some additional structures might need to be considered. Leah Hancock works at Organizational Performance Group, and heads up their four-day work week initiatives. Her firm is closed on Fridays, and she also advises others on how to implement it.

“We saw energy levels dip on Fridays,” she says, using this analysis to choose which day they’d close. They use “minimum specifications” to ensure productivity doesn’t dip, a practice she recommends other business owners and freelancers try as well. She says true adoption of this practice will have to come from some internal work we do as Americans who often grew up striving for the “American dream” and rethinking the costs and benefits. She points to Parkinson’s Law that asserts work expands to fill the time we allot it. That means those meetings that could be emails have got to go.

The 4-day week doesn’t have to mean Fridays off, and in some companies employees will have to alternate which day they are off. This might be especially true for businesses like Force by Mojio, a GPS fleet tracking company, who tried the 4-day work week for two months, but ultimately decided to quit because customers couldn’t contact them on that day off. Director of Operations Kyle MacDonald said just half of employees preferred it, which wasn’t enough to justify the lack of customer service on that day. He isn’t alone, as wildly successful Microsoft Japan’s 4-day workweek initiative (which saw a 40% increase in productivity) labeled one of the challenges to still be some employees thought it to be a “nuisance” to customers while others explained it to customers.

Hancock hopes more business owners will pilot the initiative, focusing on the benefits for employees, potential for retention and recruiting, and overall mental health impact. As I head into my fifth Friday off this upcoming week, debating between doing some professional development or maybe taking my son to the aquarium, Cross’s words reverberate in the forefront of my mind, and calendar— “Don’t be afraid to be bold. Believe in your people and it will reward you.”

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