Lessons Learned from a Year of Four-Day Work Weeks

  • Essential Common Future
  • Opinion

Sep 1, 2022 Steph Hsu Cristina Diaz-Borda

Why we’ve committed to a shortened work week and how our learnings can support your 4DWW journey

Last June, we implemented—what was at the time—a radical experiment: a four-day work week (4DWW). Though much has been written about it since, at the time, we were one of a few nonprofit organizations pioneering this approach—one that was supported by our research and data. Our hypothesis was that a 4DWW would result in increased productivity, work/life satisfaction, and empower our team at all levels. After a 4-month trial, we determined that a 4DWW was a good match for us, and we implemented it as official company policy.

One year later, our economic landscape has greatly changed, but we are still grappling with a looming recession, the Great Resignation, a broken childcare system, and the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on us all. But hearteningly, our four-day work week data has shown us that working 80 percent time for full pay works for our organization and can work for yours—despite challenges the shortened week poses. 

What the Data Showed Us

We’ve seen various headlines purporting that this way of working was doomed to fail. That was not our experience, and we wanted to share our experiences to support other organizations exploring a four-day work week. Here are some of the common arguments we’ve seen, versus what our internal survey data had to say:

Productivity—As reported in The Telegraph, employers across the UK’s large scale four-day work week experiment reported concerns with regard to decreased productivity. By utilizing the Big Rocks model, we encouraged our team members to identify what their most essential and urgent elements of their work were and to prioritize those above less essential tasks. Overall, our data has shown that we ultimately increased productivity by leaning into essentialism, and working with supervisors to adapt. This was not easy, and not without bumps along the road. Staff raised feeling overwhelmed and short on time with supervisors, and in our surveys reported a decrease in unstructured learning time. We think these learnings can support other organizations exploring a shortened work week, in particular that essentialism helped orient and maximize team schedules, but is something we regularly revisit in order to continue benefiting from a 4DWW.  

Happiness—The Conversation asserts that a four-day work week will do nothing to increase happiness and morale, doing little to stave off resignations. Our initial surveys after implementation of the 4DWW indicated that the majority of the team felt supported by the organization in pursuing work/life balance. 

Though our survey data reports an improvement in staff mental and physical health, and lowered stress levels and overall satisfaction with leisure time, it is not an absolute guarantee for either. Our organization went through a tremendous amount of change during this period, and has gone through exercises addressing immunity to change, and regular discussions on culture—and we continue to be a work in progress. If anything, the learning has been that  culture, stress, happiness all require regular maintenance.

Inflexibility—Another argument against the four-day work week is that folks with a need for flexibility would suffer, particularly parents. Our data showed an improvement in both mental and physical health for parents without impacting performance. Prior to the experiment, 80 percent of parents reported dissatisfaction with their physical and mental health.

After adopting the 4DWW as policy, we found that 70 percent of parents were satisfied with those indicators. Concurrently, parents indicated that this new model helped level the playing field with colleagues who don’t have kids—particularly when it came to flexible working hours. The percentage of parents who felt that they had the flexibility to do work on a schedule that worked for them increased from 50 to 83 percent. However, data from our four-day work week pilot, and the subsequent 4DWW policy, showed us that there were a number of areas where we could better support parents.

Supporting Parents Beyond the 4DWW

As we continue to commit ourselves to addressing the critical racial/economic injustices, we aspire to model the future of work and justice from within. In listening to feedback and data, we realized the need for policies to better support working parents, and began exploring implementation.

Prior to 4DWW, our expecting parents needed to combine paid time off and any paid state leave schemes to create parental leave. Many states do not have paid leave so any hours after they had exhausted their accrued paid time off went unpaid. We listened to staff needs, worked with our finance team, and have launched a new pilot for 2022: 16 weeks of paid leave for parents of adoptive and biological children. This also supports our equity goals, as caregivers can keep their PTO for sick time and leisure. In addition to this shift, we have begun an exploration into a caregiver stipend, reimbursement for lactation supplies needed for travel, and disability and paid family leave pilots—which we hope to share updates on in the future.

We continue to support parents through coverage of 75 percent of dependent health care costs and re-integration planning for returning from parental leave. What’s more, by examining the inherent issues with childcare, we realized that we could be part of a national solution by exploring how to center the needs of workers—and support parents—by expanding cooperative child care.

What now?

While we cannot promise that a four-day work week will be the end-all solution for a lack of happiness, productivity and satisfaction, it is a tool that can support solutions to those issues. A successful 4DWW takes work, and a commitment from staff and leadership to continue investing in making it work. If you are ready to embark on a four-day work week for your organization, you’re in luck. Here are a few of our favorite resources:

Reimagining Work: A four-day work week—This is the medium piece we first drafted when we launched our 4DWW pilot. In this, we share our assumptions and the work it took to get our pilot off the ground.

What Leaders Need to Know Before Trying a 4-Day Work Week—The Harvard Business Review shared out a guide with things your organization must consider before implementation.

4 Day Work Week Global—A not-for-profit community established by Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart to provide a platform for like-minded people who are interested in supporting the idea of the 4 day week as a part of the future of work.

Smart Work Week—Former Uncharted CEO Banks Benitez, who successfully implemented a four-day work week, has launched a cohort-based model for companies ready to explore if a 4DWW is right for them.

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