Banishing the 5-Day Workweek

A bill in California would set the workweek at four days, or 32 hours, renewing a long-standing debate.  

The pandemic threw out norms about when and where people needed to do their jobs. Could the next norm to go be the five-day, forty-hour workweek?

A proposal in the California State Legislature would define the state’s workweek as thirty-two hours—not forty—for private-sector companies with more than 500 employees. Hourly employees who log more hours would be paid time and a half for overtime. Shortening the workweek, the bill’s proponents say, would increase employment and reduce employee burnout.

Savvy employers are already trying out flexible hours and allowing remote work, along with other strategies. Their objectives are twofold: to reduce employee burnout and to attract new workers. “The whole experience of working from home has left people with a license to innovate,” says Nathan Blain, Korn Ferry’s global lead for optimizing people costs. “Now organizations are saying, ‘What else can we think about that might unlock some value for us?’”

A government-mandated four-day workweek is not something many experts want, however. And even if the idea has some appeal for employees, many employers aren’t fans. A 2021 survey by Sequoia Consulting Group of 459 companies, mostly in tech, found that 90 percent of them didn’t plan to adopt a four-day workweek.

Even if the five-day, forty-hour workweek has been a US standard for about a century, the four-day workweek has been talked about for decades. A few firms already define a thirty-two-hour workweek as full-time. In 1956, then vice president Richard Nixon predicted a four-day workweek in the “not too distant future.”

The idea behind the shorter workweek is that it will help both employees and companies by aligning work-life balance. Over the last two years—as the pandemic has blurred the lines between work and home—academics, economists, business leaders, and even mental-health professionals have championed shorter workweeks as a way to reduce stress and anxiety, and potentially boost productivity. Businesses would benefit, proponents say, because fewer workers would burn out.

The four-day workweek’s track record is decidedly mixed, however. A study of 2,500 Icelandic workers adopting a four-day workweek from 2015 to 2017 found that both employees and employers benefited. But in 2019, Microsoft discontinued its own highly-watched experiment in Japan after five weeks. The burger chain Shake Shack started a trial of a four-day workweek in 2019 but paused it last summer.

Some experts say a four-day workweek could cause more problems that it could potentially solve. For instance, hotels, airlines, and casinos risk upsetting customers if their frontline employees aren’t available 24-7, says Radhika Papandreou, leader of Korn Ferry’s North American Travel, Hospitality and Leisure practice. A four-day workweek could force these businesses to dramatically increase employee headcounts, increase the amount of paid overtime, or both. The sector is already having a tough time finding employees, Papandreou notes. “Offering work flexibility is key, but a four-day week for this sector is a tough proposition,” she says.

Whether it’s a four-day week or some other approach, employers should ensure that the solution addresses the underlying issues: employees trying to avoid burnout and achieve a better work-life balance. “The truth is that people aren’t getting burned out working forty-hour weeks. They’re getting burned out working sixty hours a week for five straight weeks,” says Bradford Frank, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and member of the firm’s Global Technology practice.