Again and again over the past several years, the same type of news has emerged from the business realm: a new company has made the switch to the four-day workweek. In 2017, Basecamp blogged about its "Summer Hours," or four-day workweeks between May 1 and August 31. Volt Athletics wrote about its policy in an August 2020 Medium post. Chelsea Fagan, CEO of media company The Financial Diet, has tweeted several times about the company's decision to embrace a four-day workweek in spring 2021, noting that "the idea of a five-day workweek now seems insane looking back."
For many — especially those in the United States — the four-day workweek can feel like a concept forever out of reach, like hover cars or time travel. But the pandemic has upended expectations for what's normal and possible.
While the switch to a four-day workweek requires careful preparation, executives at two companies — Utah-based eFileCabinet and San Francisco-based Bolt — told HR Dive the benefits can be substantial.
Put in the research
Before making the switch to a four-day workweek, it's essential to consider how the company will implement the policy. HR pros can study successful initiatives elsewhere and run a pilot that will allow the company to see how the policy performs in practice, leaders at Bolt and eFileCabinet told HR Dive.
"We carefully looked at a lot of the pilots that had been run in different markets around the world," said Michael Plante, chief marketing officer at eFileCabinet. "There were pilots in New Zealand, in Spain, in Iceland. The Microsoft team in Japan piloted it. So we looked at all of the data — all the learnings — that came out of those research projects."
Jesse Wood, eFileCabinet's CEO and the policy's first advocate at the company, had already amassed quite a bit of research on the four-day workweek when the pandemic hit, setting things in motion. "COVID just really accelerated everything because it seemed to underline or underscore some of the tensions that were already there, whether [that was] burnout or work-life balance or taking care of our families," Plante said.
The company began by giving its approximately 125 employees 1 to 2 Fridays off per month, which lasted for "the better part of a year," Plante said. The experiment allowed eFileCabinet to determine the policy could be a success.
Fintech company Bolt, which just made permanent its four-day workweek, began piloting the policy in September, Chief People Officer Jennifer Christie said. Like at eFileCabinet, Bolt's leadership saw the four-day workweek primarily as a solution to burnout and a way to help employees recharge.
"We were finding that people weren't taking time, weren't stepping away and weren't being really as intentional as they could [have been] about the meetings they were in," Christie said. Employees felt guilty taking even one day off and worried about putting extra work on their colleagues shoulders, she said. Bolt recognized the issue and hoped to shift to what it calls a "conscious culture": one in which the company "balances execution with humanity."
"The thought was, 'Listen, if we actually want to drive this, let's make it companywide,'" Christie said. "That way everyone steps away at the same time. There won't be any meetings that day. People know that you … hold off Slacking somebody until Monday, hold off sending that email until Monday."
Shift the mindset
For anxious executives, the concern about the four-day workweek is that productivity will decline. After all, in most cases, the policy amounts to a reduction in hours rather than shifting the same number of hours into four days. But this relies on an outcome measurement tool that is rapidly becoming outdated in today's workplace: the clock.
When pressed to accomplish the same amount in a shorter span of time, eFileCabinet employees found plenty of spots on the schedule that just weren't being optimized. "It's really been about focus and prioritization," Plante said. Each department found its own ways to scale back needless tasks and dump processes that weren't delivering on outcomes.
Figuring out what to measure for success was an important step, Plante said. In the marketing department, where Plante works, "We shifted the output that we were measuring ourselves with from leads to sales pipeline. That sounds really simple and really straightforward. But what it means is if it produced leads, but it didn't produce a sales pipeline — the sales team didn't get opportunities they could work out of that — then my marketing teams stopped doing it. They just stopped doing it." This freed up the time and budget to focus on the strategies that more reliably generated a pipeline, he said. Another department invested in a piece of software that dramatically reduced time spent on communications.
In other words, presented with a challenge to do the same with less, departments quickly learned what frustrating tasks were wasting time, and how to strategize for the outcomes that really mattered for company success. "It reminds me of an onion," Plante said. "We got the stuff that was kind of obvious, right before and right after we rolled out the four-day workweek. And then we uncovered … the next layer of productivity gains that we can achieve. And so that's kind of how it worked."
One common time-waster, Bolt found, was unnecessary meetings. Despite the "meeting that could have been an email" trope, which has inspired everything from mugs to ribbons to coasters, many managers and other workers continue to corral colleagues into rambling meetings with no agendas, no action items, and often, seemingly, no point. By injecting the discipline of time reduction, such poor uses of time may finally fall by the wayside as employees share what is and isn't essential for their goals.
Reel in talent
The four-day workweek may be especially appealing to employers now, against the backdrop of the ongoing labor shortage and war for talent. Workers are experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout, to which both Plante and Christie alluded. Moreover, in an employee's market, workers are now on the hunt for better benefits and more flexible policies.
Since instituting a four-day workweek, "I would say we've seen a three-to-fivefold increase in interested candidates," Plante said, as well as a "sense that candidate quality is also very high." In fact, the day in August that the company announced the policy, "We had a tsunami of great candidates" apply for open roles, which "resulted in some very solid hires."
Similarly, Christie said Bolt received a jolt of interest when news of its intention to keep the four-day workweek spread across social media. "I had a team meeting yesterday with my leads, and all of them reported after this came out on LinkedIn and on Twitter that they just got a deluge of people pinging them and saying, 'Are there open roles? I want to apply' — that kind of thing," she said.
The interest is unsurprising; as news has spread that more and more companies are adopting it, workers have been clamoring for the four-day workweek. An Eagle Hill Consulting study released in November found that 83% of workers believed a four-day workweek would reduce burnout.
Keep employees happy
With employee burnout at the heart of both companies' considerations for establishing the four-day workweek, has the policy addressed the issue? The answer seems to be 'yes.'
After its three-month pilot, Bolt sent out a survey to employees to determine whether it should continue the policy and how effective it was. The response was overwhelmingly positive; 94% of employees and 91% of managers were in favor of continuing the four-day workweek. For the most part, there was little impact to productivity, with 86% of employees reporting they were more efficient with their time and 85% of managers reporting their teams did not have issues hitting their goals. And — most crucial to the question of burnout — 84% of employees reported they had improved their work-life balance.
At eFileCabinet, Plante estimates that voluntary attrition is down 40% to 50%, demonstrating a major retention success.
"One of the employees on my team, she's like, 'We're more productive than we've ever been, and the extra day going into the weekend is helping our health emotionally and mentally,'" Plante said. "Another employee, one of my peers on the executive staff, she's talked about how it actually helps her achieve work-life balance and that actually makes her a more focused and productive employee."
Having Fridays off — or another day, for those who need to work different days or hours for client-based reasons — allows employees to "stack" necessary life tasks like doctor visits or grocery runs on Fridays, freeing up work hours for work and valuable weekend hours for time with friends or family.
Bolt encourages employees to use their extra day to explore and recharge, aiming to make them happier and more productive employees. According to CEO Ryan Breslow, the four-day workweek allowed creativity to "explode" at Bolt.
"Personally, I've noticed that my best work is done when I go 'all in' on working over four days, and take the long weekend to recover and explore other passions of mine like dancing, meditation, and hiking," he told Fast Company. "I have a lot more time to think clearly, be creative, and be strategic."
This idea, backed by research, further complicates the notion that productivity can be well-measured by hours on the clock; the human brain does not run steadily like a machine, but requires downtime to process information, make connections, and often, generate its best ideas.
Plante echoed Breslow's sentiment. "The time on Friday creates white space where I can actually process strategic issues and projects and initiatives mentally," he said. "Just mental white space. I'm not sitting in a conference room in a meeting or sitting in Zoom on a meeting or firing off 25 emails that are pressing. So even though I'm not working — I might be out hiking or Christmas shopping — my mind is better able to process problems, challenges and strategic issues. That white space is making me personally a better leader."