Culture   //   December 9, 2022

Can the four-day working week ever really scale?

Perhaps less really is more. The recent headlines generated by the results of the largest four-day working week trial were undoubtedly eye-catching. In early December, the programs for 33 organizations, mainly in the U.S. and Ireland and spanning numerous industries, officially concluded after six months. A vast majority – over 90% – plan to continue the four-day week.

The report from 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit organization facilitating the trial – and another one in the U.K. that includes 70 businesses and finishes next February – noted: “For the companies, relevant metrics showed high levels of success.” On average, revenue had risen 38% compared to 12 months earlier, and hiring also rose. Meanwhile, absenteeism was lower, and resignations were down.

And yet, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the four-day week may have a scale issue. Almost all of the companies in the trial were small- to medium-sized organizations – only two of the 33 participants employed more than 101 workers. Whether or not the four-day week can work for larger organizations is as yet, untested.

Joe O’Connor, who until October was CEO of 4 Day Week Global, is keen to find out – and help with – the answer. Early sight of the trials’ results convinced Toronto-based O’Connor to establish the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence in late November. “We’re no longer talking about this philosophically,” he said. “The evidence is strong enough to show there is no question that a four-day week is possible and can be pulled off without sacrificing performance or revenue.”

Now, though, business leaders at larger corporates will ask themselves how a four-day work can work for their organization, O’Connor added. 

Scaling-up challenge

Why is the four-day working week so challenging to implement at scale? “Larger companies typically have a much more complex organizational structure, with a breadth of different locations, functions, departments,” said O’Connor. There are also more complex internal politics and bureaucracy. “Smaller companies could have a pioneering CEO or founder that buys into this idea and trialing it is much easier and a shorter journey,” he added. “We’re hoping this new CoE [center of excellence] will support those larger, more complex organizations that require bespoke, specialized help.”

The three areas that the Work Time Reduction CoE will focus on – transformation, technology, and testing – indicate where O’Connor believes more development is required to take the four-day week to the next level.

O’Connor argued that once market leaders shift to a four-day week model, it will force others to follow if they want to attract and retain talent. “The thing to move the needle again will be getting those organizations that have influence within an industry to move in this direction; then the ripple effect will be huge,” he said. “In other words, if you can get some of the larger players in law, accountancy, and so on, you could push it to the next level.”

“When you look beyond the industries where there are high standards, high pay with lots of benefits, and start to consider more on-site, lower-paid sectors, it is much more challenging to reduce work time but maintain productivity, because more workers are needed.”
Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec.

Adam Grant, professor of psychology at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, called for leaders to embrace change and stated that a four-day week, even at big corporates, is perhaps not that radical. “Henry Ford found, a century ago, that people were more productive if they worked five days instead of six,” he said. Grant stated that Ford’s shift to five days had an impact on morale, loyalty, and overall productivity. “Why are we stuck on five days? Is this, too, a human invention that deserves to be rethought?,” he added.

However, Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec, Ireland’s largest lobby and business representative group, raised concerns that pushing ahead with the four-day working week could lead to a “two-tier” workforce. “When you look beyond the industries where there are high standards, high pay with lots of benefits, and start to consider more on-site, lower-paid sectors, it is much more challenging to reduce work time but maintain productivity, because more workers are needed,” she said.

As an example, McElwee pointed to McKinsey research that showed 4.5 million more workers are likely to be needed in the health and social care sectors by 2030 in Europe. “We currently have 24 million,” she added. “So how do you recruit for the additional staffing that you would need to reduced the hours of our current working cohort?”

Competitive advantage in uncertain times

The 4 Day Week Global results landed a month after LinkedIn data suggested that around 68% of global business leaders believed that progress made on flexible working during the pandemic was at risk, with organizations likely to face economic uncertainty in the coming months, if not years.

O’Connor challenged this logic. He countered that it was time to accelerate flexible working policies. “It’s in periods of great external disruption that pioneers give themselves a competitive advantage,” he said. In his mind, the work evolution sparked by the coronavirus crisis will not stop now. 

Having worked in the work time reduction space since 2018, O’Connor is well placed to comment. While plenty of firms planned to implement four-day working week plans before the pandemic, those plans were shelved as organizations activated survival mode. But, he said, as the route out of the crisis became clearer, those policies were accelerated.

“The potential impact of a recession is similar,” he said. “External risks could cause some organizations to hold off on this [which could affect] the pace of adoption…but the genie is out of the bottle for the four-day working week,” he added.