Four-Day Workweeks—Back Again?

The pandemic is convincing more companies to experiment with workweeks. But does cutting days only add to people’s workloads?

It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, the kind of day made for relaxing on the beach with a book and a beverage. But instead of doing that, the marketing team was on a Zoom call scrambling to get final approvals for a campaign about to launch. Once out of the ordinary, weekends like this were becoming regular—and not because the firm was adding workdays.

It had actually reduced them.

With pressure to experiment more as business struggles under COVID-19, some firms are turning to four-day workweeks or reduced hours. The idea is to boost work-life balance to help both the employees and the companies themselves. Indeed, over the last year—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 while potentially boosting productivity.

But for some organizations and workers who have implemented such measures, the reality is something different. According to recent news reports, at firms and governments trying shorter workweeks, productivity gains are ephemeral; meanwhile, incorporating the same amount of work into a tighter schedule can actually increase stress and anxiety among employees. 

Mark Royal, a senior director of Korn Ferry Advisory who works with clients on improving employee engagement and performance, says one problem is such tactical solutions don’t address the underlying issues employees face in balancing work and personal responsibilities. “For today's maxed-out workers, professional and personal demands simply leave them with too much to do and too little time to do it,” says Royal.

The pandemic has shined a harsh light on those demands. Longer work hours, more erratic schedules, heavier workloads resulting from layoffs and furloughs, and homeschooling and family care are putting a strain on workers that one day or a few hours less of work per week isn’t going to fix. Instead, says Nathan Blain, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader of organizational strategy and digital transformation, purposeful leadership has proven more effective in increasing productivity than programmatic scheduling changes.

Korn Ferry research, for instance, shows that organizations that score the highest among employees for their responsiveness to work-life balance concerns overwhelmingly cite management and culture as the reason. Factors such as leaders who provide clear direction on the highest-value tasks, ensure that workloads are fairly and equitably distributed, emphasize teamwork to cope with work demands, and empower employees with decision-making authority have all been shown to be more valued by employees than a shorter workweek. “On balance, a skilled manager is far more effective in inspiring productivity,” says Blain.

Still, experts say that organizations and governments should keep experimenting with the concept, and that shorter workweeks can be beneficial. Microsoft, for example, found that sales per employee jumped 40% when it gave all its employees in Japan Fridays off in August last year. But Royal says the evidence so far is sending a clear message to leaders that creating more engaged and productive workforces requires looking beyond simply providing flexibility in where and when employees work.

“It isn’t about fewer hours, it’s about enabling work environments where employees can accomplish tasks as efficiently as possible, leaving more time to attend to personal responsibilities,” Royal says.