The 4-day workweek is on everyone’s minds after the UAE became the first Gulf country to adopt the model. However, this is hardly a new concept for the rest of the world. In the past, various governments around the world had tried this model with varying degrees of success and popularity, including Japan, New Zealand and Spain. There are academic studies that show evidence of an increase in productivity and competitiveness when adapted correctly. J. Bruce Tracey, a professor of human resources at Cornell University says that it is a progressive policy that promotes an employee-friendly and competitive business environment. Studies show that this type of work schedule increases productivity and reduces costs associated with burnout, stress, absenteeism, turnover and related employee challenges.
In 2019, Microsoft tried a variant of this schedule in Japan. Employees were given five Fridays off without pay cut. The company wanted to test the hypothesis that shorter and flexible work hours would significantly increase productivity and creativity.
The results were astounding as they saw that productivity per employee increased by 40% in August 2019, compared to the previous year. The company has since admitted that there are other contributors to this phenomenon. Furthermore, they also found that power consumption decreased by 23% and 90% of employees supported the idea.
Enhanced Work-Life Balance and Mental Health
Between 2015 to 2019, Iceland conducted the world’s largest trial for the 4-day workweek. The experiment involved at least 1% of the country’s working population, i.e. 2500 people and covered industries and businesses from playschools to hospitals and social service providers. The trial participants adopted 35 or 36-hour week.
The participants reported that the shorter working hours aided them in better rest and recreation, which increased their overall well-being at work. Furthermore, they were able to find more time to complete errands such as shopping, cleaning and tidying during the weekdays, especially among the male participants who were in heterosexual relationships.
The productivity levels in these workplaces either remained the same or increased slightly across the workplaces that were in the experiment. The experiment was found to be an overwhelming success as more than 86% have moved to shorter working hours without any pay cut.
Japan, a country notorious for the most number of deaths due to overworking or “karoshi”, in 2021 announced a plan to achieve a better work-life balance. The Council on Economic and Fiscal policy promoted an optional 4-day workweek policy. The 4-day workweek carried out by Microsoft Japan was in addition to this. However, this new development divided the working population. Younger populations and couples with children consistently opted for the shorter working hours as it helped them spend more time with family or pursue side-hustles. Meanwhile, the older middle-aged workers did not want to forgo their overtime payments.
For all of its benefits and pros, we need to be careful about adapting the work schedule blindly. What worked for one business or industry may not work for everyone. Businesses should approach this future with careful analysis of the facts by location, job type and other factors. For example, in the hospitality field, there is a limit to the number of rooms a housekeeper will be able to clean in an 8-hour shift. If you reduce that working hours to six or seven, you reduce the number of rooms they will be able to clean, which will cause you to hire additional housekeepers. Therefore, while a reduction in the number of tasks per staff may reduce their stress, burnout, absenteeism and turnover, as well as reduce health risks associated with physically demanding work, the financial costs associated with sourcing, hiring, training and retaining additional staff may outweigh the benefits for you.