As work and work life continue to evolve, companies are exploring whether a shorter week can solve some of the workforce’s biggest challenges.

hai and Naomi Aharony, managing directors of London-based digital PR agency Reboot, have embraced a new normal – in March, they moved their company to a four-day work week.

The pair were inspired to do so by the apparent success of a four-year, cross-industry trial in Iceland, which led to higher productivity amongst the 2,500 workers involved and lower rates of burnout. Many workers in Iceland have now moved permanently to 35 or 36-hour weeks.

“It alleviated our anxieties and gave us the reassurance that this could work for us,” Aharony tells ZDNet, who says the results of Reboot’s trial “have been outstanding so far.”

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Under the four-day working model, all Reboot staff get Fridays off. Productivity has increased and employees report being happier and more rested, Aharony says.

Internal surveys have also revealed a 21% increase in the number of employees who report having a good work-life balance. “It’s the best business move we’ve made since we founded Reboot in 2012,” he adds.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the four-day week: working fewer hours for the same pay is hardly a hard sell, particularly at a time when the line between employees’ professional and private lives has become something of an ill-defined blur.

And Reboot is not alone: buoyed by the results of the trials in Iceland and in other countries, as well as promising outcomes reported by companies such as Microsoft in trialling shorter working weeks, more organizations are exploring whether giving employees an extra day for themselves can result in a happier, more engaged and more sustainable workforce.

Civo, a web-hosting company based in Stevenage, UK, implemented a four-day week in April 2022 after running trials with its 30-strong team in late 2021.

Civo founder Mark Boost says staff unanimously embraced the move, which has not only boosted the collective wellbeing of the company but has also proved key in supporting both continued retention and attraction of new staff.

“Work should be fun; it should be something you enjoy. If you can make people happy, they will do their best work,” Boost tells ZDNet.

The growing adoption of the four-day week amongst businesses comes at a time of growing evidence that reducing hours for employees reduces stress and burnout without compromising productivity.

In June, 3,000 employees across 60 companies will embark on the largest four-day week trial to date. Running until December 2022, the pilot will examine how shorter weeks might work within different industries and the benefits and challenges of doing so.

Boost says the decision to move his staff to a four-day week was primarily driven by wanting to help employees achieve a better work-life balance – the productivity element was almost an aside. After initially having trialled a 37.5 hour week, the company has now reduced the week to 34 hours for all staff, who remain on the same pay.

“Teams are more engaged and motivated, and crucially, from a business perspective, we have seen no drop in the quality of work delivered,” says Boost.

On the outside, the four-day working week appears to be a solution with a lot of benefits and very few downsides. Employees get an additional day to themselves to spend on hobbies, on themselves or with friends, family and loved ones, while employers benefit from happier, more engaged employees – with no trade-off in productivity.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t present challenges. The four-day week principle is based on the assumption that employees will be able to cram the same – or a comparable – volume of work into fewer hours. While most employers understand that the focus should be on the quality of work and not quantity, some workers might struggle to compress their work into four days. The appeal of an extra day off might quickly diminish if it means four gruelling 10-12 hour shifts per week.

Though perhaps this speaks more to the broken nature of work than it does question the capability of workers to perform their jobs effectively.

Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at analyst firm Gartner, says that despite mounting evidence around the benefits of a shorter working week, many employers will struggle to get comfortable with the idea “that working less actually means creating more.”

‘Dirty little secret’

Kropp is alluding to various pieces of research published over the years that have shown a detrimental relationship between long working hours and productivity. The longer employees are pushed to work, the lower their actual output becomes. Human brains simply aren’t geared for long bouts of highly productive, highly creative work.

Instead, these studies – as well as anecdotal evidence from companies like Microsoft that have experimented with shorter weeks – have found that employees work with greater efficacy when employed for fewer hours. As a result, the extra day that employees aren’t at work is offset by the gains companies receive in productivity.

“What employees realize – and this is a dirty little secret that people don’t like to talk about – is that there’s a lot of wasted effort that goes into work in a typical week,” Kropp tells ZDNet.

“A lot of the brain science shows that employees and average human beings only have about 20 to 25 hours per week of truly creative time and creative thinking. The rest of the 20-25 hours that we spend at work is just busywork.”

Some organizations view the four-day week as a means of changing the rhetoric around work and the unhealthy ideals that the corporate world can foster.

Bristol-based environmental charity City to Sea moved to a four-day week in early May 2022, while keeping staff on the same pay.

There were a number of reasons behind making the switch, although Hetti Dysch, City to Sea’s HR manager, argues that work as it’s structured today isn’t necessarily geared towards preserving the wellbeing of workers.

“We culturally live in what I call a ‘blaze and burn’ culture, which is about working hard, playing hard, going for more the whole time, and then burning out,” Dysch tells ZDNet.

“As workers, we drive and are driven very hard, as if that is the default and only way to achieve success.”

Dysch says the move to a four-day week was particularly symbolic for City to Sea and the nature of the work it does. When you’re fighting for environmental causes, sustainability needs to be at the heart of everything you do.

“As an organization, we have to be here for the long haul,” she explains. “My greatest contribution that I can give the organization is to make sure we have a happy work team who are highly engaged and operating sustainably within their work practices.”

Having employees work less can bring another climate-friendly boon: 20% less time sat at a computer means – in theory – a 20% reduction in the associated digital footprint. Likewise, reducing the number of days employees need to commute means fewer emissions for those that drive or take public transportation to work.

“I really can’t think of a reason not to do it,” says Dysch. “Every business has environmental targets, so I think it’s important to show how this can meet some of those targets, especially large businesses.”

Despite the unanimous buy-in from staff on the four-day work week, City to See also recognized there would be teething problems in compressing a full week’s work into four eight-hour days.

The feeling of being overstretched was the top concern cited by staff when the company tried to measure the challenges faced by its team in adopting the model, alongside operational challenges to managing new work patterns and the fact that workloads had not decreased.

But overcoming these challenges will pay off in the long term if it means a better world of work. “It’s easier to go with the status quo than it is to say you’re going to try something new,” says Dysch.

“People are frightened of change and people are frightened that people are going to be slack. But if you’re in an organization where you’ve got that fear, then you’ve got a problem anyway.”

A new approach to work

In many ways, the four-day week is a continuation of the ongoing push by knowledge workers to regain some agency in their professional lives through a more flexible approach to work.

Hybrid working offers professionals the freedom – or at least, the option – of splitting their time between the office and remote working, although many employees are still being asked to work the same hours on the same days.

Truly flexible work means giving employees the freedom to choose where and when they do their work. You could argue that the four-day week is still pretty regimented as far as flexibility is concerned, but it does at least recognize that current working patterns aren’t tailored to our modern, hyper-connected lives.

Technology workers are playing a pivotal role in the move to new models of work. As demand for developers, cloud engineers and cybersecurity staff soar, employers are being forced to make allowances for remote working and atypical working arrangements.

Offering a four-day week is also valuable ammunition for organizations eager to attract – and retain – highly sought-after tech talent, particularly if they don’t have the financial chops to offer the crazy salaries that larger companies are attaching to their job ads.

“What companies are realizing is that you can compete by giving the gift of time to employees,” says Kropp.

“When you give employees the gift of time through a short work week, the real thing that you’re doing for your employees is decreasing the stress that they have, decreasing the likelihood of burnout that they have, and you’re making their lives better by supporting their mental health.”

Developers will be familiar with the impact that increased workloads have on mental health, with tech workers currently facing high rates of burnout driven by a surge in demand for software.

This drove Manchester-based creative agency Anything to embark on its own trial of a four-day week, which started in May.

Anything co-founder Mark Holt says the company has always encouraged flexible hours and hybrid working, but was influenced to trial the four-day week after bringing a new developer on board.

“He specifically was looking for a four-day working week because he wanted a better work-life balance. We thought, why not? Let’s try it and see how it goes – maybe it’s something that we can learn from,” Holt tells ZDNet.

Holt is also attuned to the pressures of working in an industry that is perpetually moving faster and becoming more complex. “We are very much focused on mental health and the risk of burnout. Being a developer myself, I’ve suffered from burnout in the past and it’s something we want to avoid in the agency,” he says.

Anything’s four-day week trial will initially run for one month, with a view to extending this through to September pending early results and employee feedback. There will be no change in salary and no change in working hours for employees.

Holt appears confident that the pilot will prove a success, and will enable the company to both better attract new talent as well as help it meet its ambitions to become climate-neutral.

In terms of productivity, it’s still early days, but Holt is optimistic that data captured during the trial will lend merit to the argument for introducing a four-day week permanently.

“As a team we’re very good at logging our tasks and recording how long things take, so as the trial continues, we’ll be monitoring productivity with a hope that bringing in a four-day week will, in effect, see a rise in productivity,” he says.

“The early signs are certainly positive. The four-day week adds so many benefits to our workforce.”