Is the 5-day workweek dead?

Momentum is gaining for organizations to adopt four-day workweeks, and workers who have tried it aren’t eager to go back to working five days.
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Once upon a time, the notion of a five-day, 40-hour workweek was just that — a notion, cooked up by “crazy” labor organizers.

When the Industrial Revolution took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, machines and factories enabled people to increase output according to the manpower and working hours invested. That resulted in most people working in manufacturing, including children, putting in 80–100-hour weeks working between 10 and 16 hours for six days every week.

That kind of workload proved unsustainable and untenable, and the labor movement was born. What followed was a series of labor battles — in some cases literally — that ultimately saw the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act by Congress in 1938, which required employers to pay overtime to all employees who worked more than 44 hours a week. This act was amended in 1940 to reduce the workweek to 40 hours — or five eight-hour days — and since then, the 40-hour workweek has been a U.S. law.

However, in recent years a new push has begun to reduce the workweek from five to four days. It started with the ubiquity of technology like email, laptops, and smartphones making it increasingly easier and even likely for professionals to bring their work home after hours. The COVID-19 pandemic further saw a dramatic rise in the number of people working remotely, which has continued at least in part through today, and blurred the lines between work and home even more. It’s easy to say you only work a 40-hour or five-day workweek, but when work is essentially just a swipe away, is anyone really ever “off” anymore?

As Jack Torrance once wrote ceaselessly in The Shining, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and that certainly didn’t work out very well for him, haunting notwithstanding.

However, after more than 80 years with the 40-hour workweek as the national standard, is change necessary to better reflect the workforce needs of today? Is change even possible?

For this month’s cover story, we looked at some global trends taking place to address the issue as well as some local organizations having mixed success implementing shorter workweeks themselves.

‘Never going back’

Much publicized earlier this year were the results of multiple six-month studies conducted in the U.K. and U.S. that looked at the effects of more than 100 businesses — ranging from banks to fast-food restaurants to marketing agencies — reducing their workweeks to four days, or 32 hours.

Thousands of workers participated in the studies and the results may be a wake-up call for five-day workweek stalwarts.

More than 90% of the British companies said they would continue testing the shorter week, with many planning to make it permanent, according to the study’s organizer, 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit associated with the University of Oxford that helps companies execute and measure the impact of a four-day workweek. Furthermore, 15% of the employees who participated in the study said, “no amount of money would make them accept a five-day schedule at their next job.”

Of the U.S. companies that participated in a similar study last year, none reported that they will go back to five-day workweeks.

The six-month 4 Day Week Global pilot program uses a 100-80-100 model: Workers receive 100% of their pay for 80% of the time and maintain 100% productivity. Workers, unsurprisingly, are fans, rating the experience at 9.1 on a 10-point scale, with 97% saying they want to continue the condensed schedule.

Workers self-reported that their performance levels went up while burnout and fatigue went down as they gained more control over their schedules and also saved an hour per week on commuting.

Business leaders also reported that they’re willing to continue with the shortened work schedule because business didn’t suffer. On average, businesses decreased their schedules by six hours, from about 41 to 35 hours per week per employee, and of those that provided data, businesses reported an 8% increase in revenue throughout the trial period, and a 38% increase from the same period a year prior.

A number of other countries have also trialed or are planning to trial a four-day workweek, many of them in Europe but also Japan and New Zealand. One of the most comprehensive was done in Iceland between 2015 to 2019, where about 2,500 workers piloted a 35- to 36-hour workweek (cut down from the traditional 40 hours) without a commensurate cut in pay.

The pilot was deemed successful by researchers and as a result, Icelandic trade unions negotiated for a reduction in working hours that has seen 90% of the working population now having reduced hours or other accommodations.

Wisconsin wades in

Efforts to establish four-day workweeks aren’t all far-flung. Wisconsin is home to plenty of small-scale programs in search of a better work-life balance.

Capri Communities, a senior living facility in Waukesha, began experimenting with four-day workweeks in January, thanks to a grant from the Wisconsin of Department of Health Services to test shortened workweeks.

Capri Communities Chief Financial Officer Kristin Ferge says the program needs at least six months before any conclusions can be drawn. “What we know is the number of applicants for each open position has increased significantly but whether it will help with retention, we don’t know yet,” she said.

Locally, One City Schools moved to a four-day workweek in June 2022, but its experiment has been hampered by the staffing challenges facing schools across the nation. One City’s plan was for its school to be open five days a week for students while teacher and staff schedules would rotate to provide sufficient classroom coverage for regular instruction. Employees would work nine to 10-hour days, four days a week.

The goal was to reduce staff burnout and help with teacher retention, but One City was forced to shut down its ninth and 10th grade programs in January of this year because of staffing shortages at the charter school.

Another local four-day workweek program is just getting started, but the early returns on that one have been positive.

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Access to Independence’s move to a four-day workweek is part of the agency’s equity efforts and is designed to provide more support for staff members, a majority of whom are people with disabilities.

Access to Independence Inc., a nonprofit independent living center that provides resources, services, and advocacy to people with disabilities in south-central Wisconsin, implemented a new four-day workweek policy on Jan. 1, according to Executive Director Jason Beloungy.

Beloungy says Access to Independence is unique because it is a disability-led and operated organization. Most of its staff and management — and its board of directors — are people with disabilities. “It is that lived experience that enables us to effectively provide an array of services for people of any type of disability and of all ages,” he says.

In addition to comprehensive services that support and empower people with disabilities, Access to Independence also provides consultation and technical assistance to businesses and entities to ensure inclusion and accessibility in built environments, websites, events, and services.

With so much offered throughout a four-county service region, by a staff of only 15, staff burnout seemed inevitable, notes Beloungy. “But we felt it was not acceptable. We also heard this from our staff in routine check-ins, and through the development of our racial equity roadmap. In 2020 and 2021, we worked with our friends at EQT by Design to build that roadmap, and that document makes clear that stretched capacity and burnout are an equity issue we must address.”

According to Beloungy, embarking on a four-day workweek happened partly by chance. In January 2022, his wife, Heather, started a new job as an office manager for First Choice Dental, which operates with a four-day workweek at its 11 Dane County locations.

“In the first few months, I listened as she and her colleagues talked about how much they valued the extra day off, and how some even saw this as an employee benefit,” explains Beloungy. “Knowing that propelled me to ask the question at a following agency management meeting: ‘What if Access to Independence went to a four-day workweek?’”

Beloungy says management seemed interested, so he suggested they all think about it, learn about it, and come back to the next meeting prepared to discuss pros and cons.

“We all reviewed articles on the subject and talked to others in the field to determine pros and cons related to the type of service agency we are,” states Beloungy. “The following month’s management meeting brought a lively discussion, and we came away prepared to begin an exploratory process with agency staff and board members.”

The next step involved making sure that a four-day workweek was something staff actually wanted, and to determine what it would look like. That included discussion at multiple all-staff meetings, as well as discussions with the board of directors to ensure they were supportive of the idea. “It would have been futile to have put together a proposal the board would have rejected,” says Beloungy. “Knowing there was support, we developed a proposal with staff and board support along the way.”

An initial survey was sent out to all staff to understand their preferences in a structure, including questions about what day they preferred to be off (Monday, Friday, or two half-days), number of hours per week (32, 36, and 40), whether all staff would be off the same day (or different days), and implications on services (days and hours of operation).

A survey was also sent to the board to gauge their preferences, which ensured their questions and concerns were answered along the way. With that feedback came some clarity, Beloungy notes, but more questions remained, and fine-tuning was needed.

“It was clear there was strong preference for half of the staff to be off on Monday and half to be off on Friday,” says Beloungy. “However, this raised concerns about inequity for paid holidays, with multiple holidays falling on Mondays, so the survey offered options to address this. The second survey also asked staff about their comfort in reduced vacation accrual with reduced hours, and the feedback was supportive.”

Those surveys and discussions along the way made it possible for Access to Independence to build a proposal that most staff would strongly support, all staff could live with, and a proposal that could become policy with board support.

The entire process began in early 2022, and Access to Independence’s board of directors passed a new four-day, 36-hour workweek policy in November of last year. The new policy also allowed the organization to add an extra hour of operation each day, providing a benefit to those it serves.

Now several months into its program, Beloungy notes scheduling can still be challenging. “There are a total of 15 staff, including eight who provide direct services, with most of them rotating an intake schedule,” he said. “Two additional staff handle administrative and operational functions, and there are three staff who run our statewide Certified Peer Specialist contract, with all three handling inquiries and referrals each day.

“On top of scheduling for services, we had to make changes with internal meetings,” Beloungy continues. “Our all-staff meeting fell on a Monday, and the program team met every Friday. It was a challenge to find a consistent time on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday to meet, but we landed on Tuesdays.”

When deciding who gets Monday off, and who gets Friday off, management first asked staff for their preference. Most staff were able to get what they asked for. “When we needed to make decisions, we asked staff about their needs for a preferred day,” Beloungy noted. “If a staff member had medical, child care, or religious needs, for example, we prioritized that when making a choice between staff who wanted the same day. Staff roles were not a factor, and seniority was low on the scale.”

Overall, Beloungy reports that the move has been positive. Staff members value having the extra weekday off, and enjoy every weekend being a three-day weekend. They have shared that it allows them time to run errands, more easily schedule personal appointments, spend more time with their families, or just get more rest to recharge after a demanding workload.

Of course, even the best programs are not without their struggles. Beloungy notes some staff have reported difficulty with the longer workday and feeling very fatigued after work. “We are working to make sure staff are fully utilizing their breaks, and not doing things like checking work emails or watching webinars over lunch. Staff members need take the time to rest during any workday, and especially in a longer workday.”

Another issue is external meetings that fall on scheduled days off. “Some of those are difficult to move, and result in occasional need to flex schedules,” explains Beloungy. “Staff who are off on Mondays have reported more of a build-up of email that takes additional time to get through early in the week than if they were only off on Saturday and Sunday. People off on Friday appear to have less issue with this.”

According to Beloungy, Access to Independence has not seen a significant impact on productivity in either direction, though that could be partly due to preparation. When preparing for and making the change, Beloungy stressed the need to evaluate employees’ individual processes and efficiencies. He also reminded employees that in the past, when they had a day off for a holiday, they would naturally work more efficiently knowing they had less time that week to get their work completed and address people’s needs.

“Knowing that, it’s important we reflect on what we learned from those experiences,” he says. “How did we manage them successfully and where did we see the need for adjustment? That is one example of the type of discussion we have. We do routine check-ins with staff, and that includes management. That routine connection allows us to look at each staff member’s workload and talk through struggles. That said, there is still added stress to get more done in less time, so we continue to have dialogue, show empathy and appreciation, and do what we can to work through the causes of the stress.”

Not all sunshine and rainbows

As popular as the idea of working fewer hours and/or days each week may be, simply cutting back may not make sense, or even be feasible, according to Alex Stajkovic, an associate professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business.

“This is an interesting topic on many levels,” says Stajkovic. “Culturally, here in the U.S., we’re a country obsessed with work. We get a lot of our self-worth — and, of course, our financial worth — from our work.”

Stajkovic is well aware of the 4 Day Week Global study in the U.K., and he has concerns about its reliability. “First of all, 4 Day Week [Global], the British advocacy group behind the study, likely has a vested interest in promoting the concept of a four-day week, so it raises questions about the independence of the study,” Stajkovic says. “It was not peer reviewed, and the data was not made publicly available, at least that I could find. That would be a red flag given the way we operate in the peer-review world of academia.

“But for me, the biggest issue with the pilot study is one of measurement,” he continues. “The independent variable of a ‘meaningful reduction in work time’ was undefined: Companies took different approaches during the study in terms of hours and how they were structured. So even though it’s being portrayed as a four-day week of eight hours each day, that’s not what was actually done. Going from five days to four is a 20% reduction, but the study started with 4.86 average days and ended up with 4.52 days on average, which is only a 7% difference. Getting the same performance results with only a 7% reduction in time worked is much easier than with 20% in time drop, as advertised.

“Let’s say they had actually done a 20% reduction in time. By squeezing four days into 32 hours, you’re now increasing goal difficulty — because you’ve decreased the time available to complete the original goal — by a lot, a whopping 20% overnight. As someone who studies organizational behavior and motivation, I would argue that even if this is possible, which is debatable, it may not be healthy for employees. If it is possible, what does that say about your employee productivity now? Also, there are some jobs where a four-day week just won’t work, such as mail carriers who have a specific route that probably cannot safely be done any faster.

According to Stajkovic, there are also a host of other considerations with a four-day week that people are automatically assuming but cannot be supported or debunked since these were not included in the study. “For example, how do we know that the pressure employees are under for the four workdays won’t outweigh the three free days they have to ‘rest it off’? Or maybe one’s household is more stressful than being at work. We learned that during the pandemic, many people reported feeling more trapped at home, particularly if they had a difficult, unhappy, or even dangerous home environment.

“I think another consideration that puts this debate into perspective is that the 40-hour week was not a mandate imposed on us, designed for our suffering, Stajkovic adds. “We forget that back when the government passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, children were still in the workforce. Adults were working 12-hour days, six days a week, so the Act was really to help us, not hurt us. As it stands today, some people work more, some less, but the 40-hour week still functions well for many.”

Making the four-day workweek a reality

There are headwinds for codifying the four-day workweek. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, for one, is a fan of federal legislation to update the Fair Labor Standards Act. But there’s nothing stopping organizations for doing their research and implementing a plan of their own tomorrow.

Having gone through the process, Beloungy has plenty of advice for other Madison-area organizations that might want to follow in Access to Independence’s footsteps. “The first thing I would say is I am glad we made this idea a reality,” Beloungy starts. “As for advice, I highly recommend beginning a dialogue with staff and leadership to see if there is interest in this, and to ensure an inclusive and transparent process. It is also important to be open to what your staff are suggesting, and not fall into an ‘I know best’ mentality. The policy we ended up with is not what I was initially envisioning, but it’s better because I listened and valued the feedback and incorporated it into the proposal. Our agency made this policy together, and I am proud of that.

“As for pitfalls, don’t insist on consensus, but feel confident in solutions that all staff can live with,” Beloungy continues. “Not all staff wanted the same structure, but when it came time to decide on a proposal, we made sure there weren’t aspects that staff members would be adamantly opposed to.”

Finally, Beloungy says that this is a matter of valuing the people who make your work — and success — possible, and it is a matter of equity. “Surveys and research are telling us that employees are demanding a better work-life balance,” he notes. “Allowing people more time for the things that matter to them outside of work will contribute to how well they feel valued at work. Our four-day workweek story at Access to Independence may be anecdotal, and it may be new, but it’s clear that staff appreciate it and that is important to me.”