The Four-Day Workweek: What Businesses Should Be… | Gagen MacDonald

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The Four-Day Workweek: What Businesses Should Be Thinking About

Apr 30, 2024

This piece examines different possibilities for how four-day workweek models can take shape, as well as what business leaders should consider before and during implementation. To read about the headwinds and history driving the current discussion, explore Bill and Courtney’s companion piece, The Headwinds and History Propelling the Four-Day Workweek Movement.

Several converging forces are driving today’s four-day workweek movement. As we explore in more depth in our companion piece to this one, these factors have all played a major part in elevating the current discussion: 

  • Anticipation of increased productivity from the rise of AI
  • The ongoing elevation of employee well-being and hybrid work models
  • The national labor shortage, driven by immigration battles and the pandemic
  • Pressure on businesses to transform their models
  • Legislative action

But whether a business leader sees the four-day workweek as an opportunity to differentiate, a regulatory headache to get ahead of or something between the two, for many there remains the simple question: How does a four-day workweek really work? 

It’s important to note that the leading authority on the four-day workweek, 4 Day Work Week Global, views the implementation of this concept on a broad spectrum. Organizations in 4 Day Work Week Global’s official pilot programs have implemented some version of the following five options: 

  1. Staggered: Staff take alternating days off. For instance, one team worked Monday through Thursday and another Tuesday through Friday. 
  2. Fifth day stoppage: The company shuts down one day per week. 
  3. Decentralized: Different functions operate using different work patterns — typically using a combination of the first two methods.
  4. Annualized: Staff work a 32-hour average working week calculated on the scale of one year. This is popular among seasonal businesses. 
  5. Conditional: This is like the decentralized model but the entitlement of a four-day workweek for the department is tied to performance. 

In addition to various implementation options, there is a spectrum in terms of the extent to which the additional time off is protected. Some organizations have taken intentional measures to ensure the day off is as protected as weekend days, but others operate with the expectation of occasionally checking in on work during the added day off. It’s important business leaders understand the wide range of options for implementing this, and that they thread the details to their understanding of their people. Any change initiative of this magnitude needs to deeply align with the organization’s existent culture, structure and strategy to succeed. 

To effectively implement initiatives like a four-day workweek, companies must undergo significant work redesign to reduce hours while maintaining productivity. This model cannot be successful if the ways of working, KPIs and expectations all remain the same for employees, yet they are expected to do it in less time per week. Addressing this requires streamlining operations, leveraging technology like AI to eliminate administrative tasks and focusing on high-impact work. Something like a Key Activity Analysis — an assessment that can be used to analyze what and how work is being done — would be an excellent first step for any department or organization looking to launch a pilot program. This analysis would then be followed by defining clear goals, auditing meetings to improve efficiency, enabling employees to focus on priority tasks by eliminating non-essential work, embracing asynchronous communication and resetting employee expectations through trial periods and productivity training. 

One lesson we can all learn from the global pandemic is the importance of equity and inclusion in the implementation of these programs. If the implementation is only reserved for white-collar workers in an organization with a mix of deskless, frontline and administrative employees, it will only create resentment and broaden the inequality gap. That’s why choosing an option that best fits your culture, structure and strategy is imperative. And choosing the right structure is only the first step. Change this massive requires thoughtful planning and communication throughout to enable employees to embrace changes and be successful in the organization’s future state. 

The flexibility that is inherent in the four-day workweek addresses three critical elements of the employee value proposition: Benefits & Rewards, Work Environment, and Emotional Connection & Well-Being. At the height of the 2021/2022 Great Resignation, we saw top tech companies like Microsoft, Cisco and others notably position themselves as early adopters with better parental leave benefits, and as a result, they capitalized on winning and keeping top talent. Business leaders in industries where recruiting and retaining talent is a top concern should give careful consideration not only to the proposition of a four-day workweek, but to how early they want to be in adopting the approach. The organizations that find success as early adopters will garner a boost in recruiting top talent and a positive impact on their reputation. 

How did we get here? 

In our companion piece to this one, we explore the history and headwinds driving today’s four-day workweek movement.

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