Updated: May 14, 2020
The case for the four day work week is having a shift in momentum. A topic that not long ago was met with a scoff and an eye-rolling nod to millennial entitlement is being taken increasingly seriously, with former nay-sayers coming around to the idea that less really could be more.
In 2018, a New Zealand based firm, Perpetual Guardian, which manages trusts, wills, and estates, introduced a four day work week for its two-hundred-and-forty employees, while continuing to pay them for five. The results, at the time, came as a compelling surprise and made a strong case for the importance of work-life balance as a pillar of successful business. The trial worked on an opt-in basis, allowing employees to decide for themselves whether or not they would reduce their working hours. Those who opted out, however, didn't go unconsidered and were instead offered greater flexibility in the form of, say, start and finish times, which could alleviate stresses surrounding childcare commitments or traveling during rush hour.
Andrew Barnes, founder of Perpetual Guardian and author of The 4 Day Week, declared the trial such an unequivocal success with "no downside" that he wished to make it the new norm for the business. Following the experiment, academics studying its findings reported that employees based at various offices around the country experienced an increase in focus, efficiency, and productivity, alongside lower levels of stress, an improved sense of work-life balance and greater job satisfaction.
Microsoft Japan more recently followed suit and similarly and found both data and anecdotal evidence to be very persuasive. In this case, the 2,300 person workforce was granted every Friday off for the duration of the five-week experiment, without a reduction in wages. The result was an overwhelming 40% increase in productivity, while employees were reportedly happier, more committed and empowered, less easily distracted, less stressed, and more focused on completing the task at hand with greater efficiency. “I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time”, Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano said in a statement encouraging staff to "work a short time, rest well and learn a lot.”
In each case, Perpetual Guardian and Microsoft Japan proved that the four day work week is immensely beneficial for both the happiness and quality-of-life of staff and also for the business's bottom line. So is it, therefore, reasonable to suggest that failing to offer the reduction of hours (without reducing wages) is a question of ethics? If businesses can in fact increase their output and tangibly benefit from higher levels of productivity, all while employees live happier, more fulfilled, more empowered lives, then perhaps enforcing an extra seemingly redundant, or even detrimental workday could be deemed unethical business practice.
Increasing employees' days off work from two to three per week means that they will have the opportunity to spend more time with their families, and to give back to their community. It also encourages extra contribution to local businesses, and to the tourism industry, as time off is often spent eating out, shopping, partaking in recreational activities and traveling, all of which supports economical growth. A less obvious but equally virtuous outcome is the benefit that fewer working hours appears to have on the environment. With as little as one additional day off, Microsoft reported having reduced their printing paper consumption by a staggering 59%, while electricity usage dropped by 23%. What wasn't taken into consideration was the likely reduction of carbon emissions as commuting days are cut and pollution caused by 5 days of rush hours is alleviated.
Of course, there are industries and environments that are more suited to the 4 day work week than others, and it is reductive and arguably unrealistic to expect, for example, farmers or certain manufacturers to adopt the new structure. Smaller businesses where each individual has a unique and pivotal role may also struggle to see the same surge in productivity and could encounter more logistical barriers. But with regard to larger corporations, the results are in and they are forcing us to question why we all settled for a five day work week in the first place. Enforcing a work-life structure that fails the business is senseless, but one that fails its employees is verging on unethical. Maybe it's time to embrace the new model for the modern-day office and accept that sometimes, less really is more.