Why hasn’t the four-day work week caught on?

Employee Morale

I’ve written about the idea of a four-day work week twice before — here and here — and I just wrote a piece for Vocoli (might be online tomorrow) on the same topic, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. I’ve also written before about the idea of ROWE — Results-Only Work Environments — and how people aren’t quick to adopt them because of the troubling notion that employees at companies are often treated like children and not adults. The four-day work week, though, seems to make sense. First off, the base amount of hours is the same — 40. In one situation it’s five days of eight/per and in another situation it’s four days of 10/per. It creates more engagement — every week has the chance to be a three-day weekend! — and fosters a better work-life balance, which people are always discussing both in cubicles and business journalism. But — it’s very slow to catch on in the United States. We’ll get to that in a second, but first let’s consider a company based in the United States — Treehouse, also mentioned/profiled in the video embedded above — and see some of the benefits they’ve seen from the four-day work week:

There are plenty of reasons to work a four-day week.

Recruiting is easy (we still pay full salaries and offer a very generous benefits package). We regularly have new employees choose Treehouse over Facebook, Twitter and other top-tier tech companies.

Retention is easier. One of the team told me he regularly gets emails from Facebook trying to win him over and his answer is always the same: “Do you work a four-day week yet?

Morale is boosted. On Mondays everyone is fresh and excited—not jaded from working over the weekend.

50% more time with our family and friends. I get to spend three days a week, instead of two, with my family. 50%. It’s insane. For those on the team without kids, they get to spend this extra 50% on their hobbies or loved ones.

All this makes sense. It makes hella sense to me, actually. So what’s the issue?

1. I think the first thing is pretty simple: change is hard. To change something as fundamental as the five-day work week is even harder. Americans, especially, tend to view themselves as very driven and work-oriented. Sacrificing a day, even if the hours are the same, could make people think they’re at a loss. It’s kind of like all those quotes around “If you’re not at the gym, someone else is…” that you see in NIKE ads. Same applies to business for some people.

2. Health insurance would be a big thing for some people. There are HR compliance issues, potentially, around someone only working four days. Can they be covered? (Usually this is done by # of hours, but still.)

3. You can’t give everyone Friday off; it has to be staggered (some people get Tuesday or Wednesday of). If you gave everyone Friday off, then you’re basically not a functioning company on Friday — and what happens if customers/clients need you? They’ll turn to a competitor, potentially.

4. Much like the ROWE idea above, there’s an element of basic trust here. Employers want to see you working and see you at meetings and see you grinding. If they only get four days of that as opposed to five, that might challenge some of their assumptions about how much you’re really doing.

I honestly think there are two major aspects to “the industrial economy” becoming “the knowledge economy” that we missed: one is the American school schedule, because learning loss is a huge thing. I don’t actually think kids should go to school 360 days a year or anything, but a three-month summer break is a bit much (even if it’s closer to 1.5 months in some areas of the country). The other is the workday. Just off the invention of two products — Microsoft Office and Google — it’s nearly impossible to argue that people in the 1940s should have been on the same schedule as people in 2014. There are more clients and customers and a more international feeling to business, yes — but there are also a ton more tools to do your job effectively (and/or remotely). And people are different: two people, on the same project, might be able to finish it in 32 hours (Person A) and 44 hours (Person B). If Person A has a big family, why do they need to be around the office for the other eight hours?

Flexibility = key to the whole “employee engagement” movement as it continues to develop. Companies should start here and really consider the four-day work week.

Ted Bauer

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