Across industries, HR's hurdles pile up like an unchecked inbox. Tasked with fighting employee burnout and high turnover, championing gender parity and diversity, recruiting skilled workers and more, HR and talent professionals have a lot to fit into the workweek. But what if shortening the workweek could help?
Proponents of the four-day workweek see it as something of a panacea for workers' issues and, by extension, for many of HR's current challenges. The concept seems less radical of late, with a recent Payscale report confirming that 10% of more than 7,000 polled leaders now offer the four-day week to employees. Employers from here to New Zealand have experimented with or codified a reduction in working hours after observing positive outcomes — often reporting greater employee happiness or productivity. Wildbit Co-Founder and CEO Natalie Nagele and her team have worked around 32 hours a week with Fridays off since 2017, and the practice has helped them understand their time use better than before.
"We've removed a bunch of junk from our lives, and that obviously just contributes to happiness — meetings that are useless, communication that is useless — and you know, replaced it with truly meaningful stuff really intentionally," Nagele told HR Dive in an interview.
The benefits for workers are obvious — better work-life balance, more time for caregiving and hobbies — but how specifically would such a change benefit HR?
A shorter week could do some of HR's work for it
"People are more likely to leave if they feel overworked," said Aidan Harper, researcher at the New Economics Foundation and member of the 4-Day Week Campaign in the U.K. "The relationship between overwork and well-being and mental illness and productivity — all of these things are very, very closely linked, and overwork is pretty awful for you in terms of mental health and your ability to a) work quickly and b) produce a high quality of work."
Research has shown that overwork can harm workers' health and well-being, particularly in high-stress industries. 2017 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) confirm the U.S. is in the top 10 industrialized nations that do the most paid labor on average per year per worker. With this in mind, four-day week advocates believe the policy can be the relief valve workers need long term, akin to other flexible PTO policies. For HR, the policy could improve retention and be a useful tool for recruiting in a competitive labor market.
"Keeping our team challenged is the most important aspect of retention, and by giving them an extra day to explore or relax, they can come back to work without getting burned out mid-week," Alex Dixon, co-founder of software company Monograph, told HR Dive via email. "In a way, it's like stepping back from a drawing, or taking a short walk when you're working on a hard problem; an extra day off helps reset your brain to notice things you had overlooked before."
An abbreviated workweek may assist employers with another perennial goal, according to economists studying the issue: Shrinking the gender pay gap.
"Our model of working time at the moment is kind of built around the idea of the male breadwinner working at a factory in the '50s," Harper said. "The reality of people's lives — of gender dynamics, of caring responsibilities — has changed and is continuing to change, but working time itself operates as a barrier to greater gender equality both within and outside of the workplace."
As the default primary caregivers to children and family, many women are forced to choose part-time work for its time flexibility and lose out on well-paid, full-time opportunities that promise career growth, according to Harper. By providing more free time for caring labor, a four-day week could allow more mothers to pursue full-time careers and earn higher salaries. In turn, recruiters can land talented candidates newly encouraged to re-enter the hiring pool. A policy of reduced hours would also endow fathers and all secondary caregivers with time to take on responsibilities, Harper said.
HR departments might also consider how a four-day week could benefit employees with chronic illness or disabilities by giving them another free day to visit doctors without cutting into on-the-clock time. A shortened week could help HR with upskilling, too, because workers could pursue self-directed learning during the time off, if they so desire. At Wildbit, Nagele's employees sometimes use their free Friday to learn a new programming language, she said.
"It sends an overall bigger message that we're a company that really cares about figuring out a better way to work — that we're not just stuck with the way that it's 'supposed to be,'" she said.
What challenges does a shorter week present?
Employee buy-in might come easily, but what about from the C-suite? People are a top priority for HR professionals, but other leaders may view a reduction in working hours with skepticism, questioning workers' ability to stay productive and profitable on less than 40 hours a week.
Successful working models for this exist throughout Europe — from extended summer breaks in France, the Netherlands and Spain to Germany's 35-hour workweek.
Overheads in the U.S., however, are costlier than in many European countries due to healthcare spend, presenting a barrier to hour reduction, according to Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Wildbit's reduction of work hours has been an iterative process that's required a lot of reflection and tweaking, Nagele said — demanding work that HR professionals might not want to take on.
"There's no doubt about it, the transition is going to involve cost because they're going to have to put in effort to reorganizing their workplace," Baker said. "I used to be a boss myself [...] so I understand that, but to say, 'It can't be done, it's going to put them all out of business,' that doesn't make any sense."
Defining an ideal level of productivity and auditing workers' time was critical legwork for Wildbit before adopting reduced hours, Nagele said. The transition was more seamless for Monograph because it already had a work culture that de-emphasizes deadlines.
"This means that our approach to 'productivity' is perhaps a bit different than a generation ago," Dixon wrote. "We want to make sure that when we have meetings and conversations, everyone is in peak mental performance, and this, for us, is much more important than imposing a minimum number of hours or using some other measure of productivity."
Books like Deep Work by Cal Newport have confirmed that workers capacity for top-quality work improves when they have uninterrupted time to focus on certain tasks and enjoy a work-life balance. As an economist, Baker has observed the variability of "productivity."
"I wouldn't expect someone working 36 hours per week to produce as much as someone working 40 — on the other hand, during those 36 hours I think it's very likely they'll be more productive per hour. This has been shown in a lot of different contexts," he said, noting that when France reduced its working hours, the country saw an increase in productivity.
How can HR pilot a four-day workweek?
It's hard for HR professionals to perform a cost-benefit analysis of a four-day policy when they don't know how their teams function under one. Employers willing to experiment with the idea can test it out with minimal risk if they think strategically, according to Nagele and Andrea LaRowe, head of people operations at Basecamp. HR can facilitate a temporary transition by first helping teams audit their time.
"If you have a good culture, you can ask your team how many hours they're spending on things like email, surfing the web, being in meetings during those 40 hours. You have knowledge workers whose job it is to write, think, support — how many hours are they actually spending in that?" Nagele said.
To figure out how to slash working hours, Wildbit also leaned on a tool called RescueTime to track time spent in certain apps. At Basecamp, leadership opted instead for a seasonal four-day week spanning from May until late September.
"We kind of acknowledged that productivity was going to slow down over the summer and that we would structure our work to accommodate the slow-down, not the other way around," LaRowe said. "It's obviously a big draw in terms of a benefit, and the work constraints that go along with having that benefit for a portion of the year are an interesting experiment — you know, what can you do with 32 hours versus 40? How can you be almost more efficient, in a way?"
Easing into reduced hours with a seasonal four-day week is a good place to start, LaRowe said, as long as teams set expectations and goals ahead of time. During a trial period, it's helpful to engage both workers and leadership in conversations about the policy in order to fine-tune it and decide if it's worth codifying, according to Nagele.
"To me personally, I would love to see more companies give it a shot, just so I can even learn from other peoples' failures. I think it's worth exploring and the risk is low in my view," she said.
Rethinking work with an eye toward the future
In the U.S., employers are comfortable optimizing processes in order to accomplish more, but as technology develops and work culture changes, it may become trendy to optimize in order to do less, Harper said.
In talks about the future of work, academics often reference economist John Maynard Keynes, who predicted in 1930 that automation would eventually allow society to scale back to 15 working hours a week. Even back in 1891, Oscar Wilde proposed delegating unpleasant work to machines so that workers might enjoy more of their waking hours. The theory is exciting, but automation is still a problem that employers grapple with, and the prospect makes many workers feel precarious today. Restructuring time spent at work might yet prove to be part of the solution in the future.
"For me, the 40 hours [concept] is broken," Nagele said. "That's a man-made idea, 40 hours — so why 40? And why can't we look at it and say, 'What is the right amount of work and can we do it in less in time?'"
She continued: "I'm not convinced that it's the four-day workweek, that's something that we're still thinking about. Maybe it's shorter work days, and it's just maximizing the time we spend while our brain is fresh and then we use it up and we go home for the day and start fresh tomorrow."
Harper echoed this idea, noting norms in our work culture are constructed. After all, the five-day workweek and the eight-hour work day once seemed untenable to employers.
"I found this article from The New York Times in the 1930s regurgitating this argument, and saying, 'Why would we move to a five-day week? How can a worker expect to be paid six days' wages for five days' work? It's preposterous, it'll never work.'" he said. "I don't think anyone can say that we should move back to the six-day week."