Stone's Throw

All Hail the Four-Day Workweek?

Investigative / Enterprise In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

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Indulge me for a moment on a circuitous path to the point.

Just last Monday, when conducting an off-the-record interview with a local legislative staffer about disability-related issues, the conversation took a surprise turn.

The source asked me if I might want to guess the TV show that most embodied all he hates about popular culture and the values society espouses.

Before I could take a stab at it, he gave me an unexpected answer: Thomas & Friends, a British cartoon about a tank engine that goes on adventures with his fellow locomotives, always trying to be a “really useful engine.”

I started to laugh, but the source then launched into a genuinely impassioned, well-reasoned rant about the program.

Thomas the Tank Engine’s mantra, calling on everyone to be efficient, effective and constantly at work, was nothing short of oppressive, in the source’s estimation.

“You’re a soul, in a body, and you have value beyond work,” the source asserted.

As we dove into a brief but animated conversation about the pitfalls of a seemingly innocent children’s show I’d never seen, it struck me that our disability policy-inspired discussion also had echoes of a broader post-pandemic debate surrounding the nature of work and the American pursuit of a freer, happier life.

I jumped down an online rabbit hole that afternoon, leading me to articles from a slew of national news outlets about a movement calling for a transition to a four-day workweek.

In a world where short weekends filled with never-ending demands leave many working-class and middle-class people with precious little leisure time to spend with family and friends, I wondered whether the topic warranted a write-up in this space.

‘Sunday Night Dread’

Later that evening, just as I was contemplating whether the issue might make for an interesting column topic, I walked through my kitchen and did a double take: a Boston College economist and sociologist, Juliet Schor, was outlining on a cable news show how a four-day workweek benefits employers, employees and society. (OK, this coincidence clinched it, a signal from the newspaper gods to explore what I’d thought was largely just an academic debate.)

In her TV appearance, Schor cited reduced burnout, less turnover, enhanced job performance, not to mention environmental benefits, when trumpeting the pros of a four-day workweek.

My wife stared on in bewilderment as I scrambled to record the segment on my iPhone without immediate explanation.

“I do think, though, that the four-day week has a certain momentum and it has to do with the sort of structure of work and family in America today because we’ve got so many households with dual earners and the two days of a weekend are not enough,” stated Schor, who didn’t reply to my subsequent e-mail requesting an interview.

“I mean, what we are hearing from people who are getting three-day weekends is that they finally have enough time to get ready to go back to work on Monday. That Sunday night dread is gone. They have actually time for themselves, which is really key because otherwise the weekend is just another two days of work.”

As I later learned, Schor even gave a TED talk on the topic about a year ago and delivers a very comprehensive case for taking the idea super seriously in her less than 12-minute speech, titled “The Case for a 4-Day Work Week.”

Schor has also spotlighted in interviews how no company participating in a highly-publicized recent test trial said they wouldn’t at least consider keeping a four-day workweek, after initial experimentation.

This isn’t an abstraction: More than half of American employers now offer a four-day workweek, or plan to, according to a survey released less than two weeks ago, with feedback from  976 business leaders.

In fact, about three in 10 companies will have a four-day week by the end of this year, the poll indicates, which I found staggering.

Also, only last week, the BBC reported on a local government council in Great Britain that now permits some staff to work four-day weeks for five days of pay, with results showing uninterrupted performance and new efficiencies. Dozens of countries, including Ireland, Spain and Portugal, have tested four-day initiatives.

It’s History

My deep dive then led me to, who else, but a 19th century Welsh textile manufacturer, Robert Owen.

In the early 1800s, amidst the clamor of clattering machinery and weary workers, Owen emerged as something of a beacon of hope in the developing (and often brutal) industrial landscape.

He championed what was then considered a radical idea – establishing a more humane work day of just eight hours. Owen even developed a motto: “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” he declared in 1817.

Eight hours was heaven compared to the 12 to 14 hours people – including children – were often expected to work.

Owen’s vision didn’t take hold quickly. Labor movements eventually took shape and fought for reform. But it was more than a century after Owen’s declaration that advancement began to really stick here in the United States, when capitalist incentive for change propelled progress.

America’s Business is Business

The Ford Motor Company implemented a groundbreaking initiative in 1926, introducing a 40-hour workweek divided into five consecutive days, with Henry Ford believing and proving how a more manageable workload would actually increase productivity and serve business interests. As is often the case, positive change begins to churn when economic interests and social benefits converge.

By the time 1938 rolled around, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was signed into law by FDR, introducing the standardized 40-hour work week.

Under the FLSA, most workers were entitled to receive overtime pay for any hours worked beyond the 40-hour threshold.

Now, another century on, reformers are again calling on industry to reimagine the standard definition of full-time employment, proposing the four-day workweek.

Of course, the debate also features ideological and political components.

About three months ago, Rep. Mark Takano (D-California) reintroduced the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act, which aims to reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours by amending the FLSA by lowering the maximum hours threshold for overtime compensation for non-exempt employees.

Research Results 

The New Zealand-based but worldwide advocacy group 4 Day Week Global unveiled results earlier this year of what’s been billed as the largest-ever trial of a four-day workweek, pointing to overwhelmingly positive findings.

The 4 Day Week Global pilot program, a partnership with researchers at Cambridge University and Boston College, involves a coordinated, six-month trial of a four-day week for participating companies.

A much-ballyhooed trial took place in the United Kingdom between June and December of last year and included 2,900 employees from 61 different companies. A whopping 56 of the 61 firms ultimately said they’d continue on with the four-day workweeks after the pilot ended.

Throughout the trial, several models of the four-day workweek were tested, including options like having Fridays off, staggered schedules, decentralized work and annualized hours.

The so-called 100:80:100 model ensures employees receive full pay while working 80 percent of the traditional hours, yet still achieving 100 percent productivity levels.

Unsurprisingly, the implementation of a four-day workweek led to a significant increase in job satisfaction among employee participants, with improved work-life balance, effectively reducing stress levels.

However, more influentially, the trial also revealed noteworthy improvements for employer participants in product quality and customer service, along with a considerable decrease in employee absences and sick days.

So is the notion of a four-day workweek the next step in a more enlightened continuum, with roots in our 20th century progress as the most vocal advocates seem to suggest? That sounds too strong to me. (Although it feels a lot closer to true compared to my doubtful view of a week ago.)

Instead, is the four-day workweek idea the byproduct of an overly pampered post-pandemic culture, representing the worst tendencies of coddled, self-indulgent knowledge economy elitists, as the most severe skeptics appear to insist? Definitely not.

Is the answer far more nuanced than the false-choice framing by some people on both extremes of the debate? For sure.

While large Westchester area employers I reached out to via press contacts didn’t grant interview requests (IBM declined, MasterCard didn’t reply), I was able to connect last week with a pair of insightful local authorities in the human resources field.

I also spoke to one of the world’s leading advocates for the four-day workweek. He convincingly batted back almost all of my doubting questions.

It’s Complicated 

Allison Madison is the president of Madison Approach Staffing Inc., a Hawthorne-based full-service staffing firm. She resides firmly and rightly in the “it’s complicated” camp.

“I don’t think that it’s a yes or no, any of these things, and that it’s very dependent upon every person’s situation and every company’s situation, I would say,” said Madison, the co-chair of the Westchester Business Council’s Human Resources Council.

“We tend to have this bifurcated view and it’s a false narrative to me where everything is binary,” she also said.

Madison went on to articulate her more textured view, noting how she “generally believes in laws of attraction.”

For example, if a company prides itself on its nurturing environment, it’ll attract certain types of people, and perhaps a four-day workweek would be worth exploring. But that’s not for everybody.

“Like I said, we have Wall Street guys and we have yoga instructors for a reason, and we need them both,” Madison said in our phone interview last week. “They’re two different types of people and two different work environments. And like I said, I don’t believe in a binary world. We need both. And you’re going to attract what you need as long as you’re clear about what your culture is, who you serve, what your product is, your services. They all have to be in alignment.”

Culture Club 

Madison also made a fascinating point about how faulty implementation of a four-day workweek – or even debate around the idea – could further fracture our already divided culture.

The viability of a four-day schedule largely depends on the organization and its ability to maintain productivity and customer service, she emphasized. If a company can offer a four-day workweek without hindering these aspects, it could provide an advantage in attracting employees.

However, Madison expressed concern about the potential for division within the workforce, particularly between the knowledge economy and other industries where a shorter week may not be as feasible.

She stressed how any company considering the idea should ensure the benefits of a shorter workweek are distributed equitably throughout the organization, preventing resentment among employees who are not eligible for such arrangements.

“And this is more like, again, a big picture sort of thing because there are large numbers of people, I’d say the vast majority of people, who do not have that ability,” Madison said. “First responders, people that work in healthcare, people who are in service industries, that’s not a reality, it’s not a practical reality for them. And so this four-day workweek, this sort of work arrangement is really for the knowledge economy. And that’s about it, whether it’s hybrid or four-day workweeks or whatever you might have it. And so culturally, I’m concerned that it’s going to further divide the workforce.” (I’ll get to the counterpoints from four-day workweek advocates shortly.)

Madison also sounded a dubious note about the idea of a four-day workweek consistently maintaining (or even increasing) productivity, drawing parallels with problems companies have been forced to navigate while maintaining a more remote workforce post-COVID.

Despite companies hiring more employees, productivity has not seen a proportional increase, Madison said, which she indicated raises similar questions about the effectiveness of a shorter work week. (The U.S. has experienced a continuous decline in productivity for five straight quarters when comparing year-over-year performance, according to research conducted by EY-Parthenon, utilizing data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

“Both anecdotally and also emerging research is showing that there’s like this contrary indicator right,” she observed. “While companies are still hiring, productivity is falling and generally those two figures go hand in hand.”

While Madison acknowledged that employees, by and large, would obviously desire a shorter work week, she cautioned about the potential impact on businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises.

She noted that the growing expectation of instant gratification in today’s society, influenced by companies like Amazon, could create challenges for smaller businesses in meeting customer demands while accommodating a reduced work schedule.

Madison also highlighted the need to focus on real-world considerations for different industries and businesses.

While larger corporations may have the resources to implement a four-day workweek, smaller businesses, including mom-and-pop establishments and restaurants, may face difficulties in managing their workforce and meeting customer expectations within the constraints of reduced work hours.

“So again, if we live in this new paradigm where everyone wants everything all the time immediately with no delay, and that’s the expectation of every business now, then how is a small business supposed to be able to do that without asking people to work, not take off?” she said. “It’s just not a practical reality.”

Don’t Worry, Be Happy 

I also spoke last week with Kerry Flynn Barrett of the Westchester-based Flynn Barrett Consulting, a human resources consulting firm.

When asked about the advantages of a shorter work week, Barrett noted the potential benefits for employees, such as reduced commuting time and expenses. But she also emphasized the potential advantages for employers.

“When your employees are really happy and able to meet their family needs or their own needs better and have some of that work-life balance, then it just creates such a positive cycle that if they’re in a creative field, they’re going to be more creative,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “If they’re in a financial field, they’re going to be more focused and be able to do what they need to do.”

She mentioned the positive impact on work-life balance, especially for those with long commutes or childcare responsibilities.

Barrett also pointed to the correlation between employee happiness, productivity and engagement. Happy employees tend to be more motivated, contributing to a positive work environment and potentially boosting creativity and performance.

“Childcare expenses are so high, and if you could, in any way, shape or form cut back on that and not have to pay for that extra day for child care, that’s nothing to sneeze at,” she said. “That’s 20 percent less if you could afford to do that. And if you could find a childcare place that would allow you to do that, that’s a lot better for an employee. Does it make that much of a difference from the employer standpoint? Listen, if you have happy employees, you absolutely get more out of the employees when you have happy employees.”

While discussing the potential of a four-day workweek, Barrett drew parallels with the rise of remote work in a different context. She said how competitive pressures might eventually push more and more employers to consider shorter weeks, just as remote work gained traction due to external circumstances.

Working Moms

But my other source’s Thomas the Train rant creeped back into my mind when Barrett shared a related anecdote.

In the midst of discussing the challenges faced by working professionals with children, Barrett mentioned her niece, who was previously contemplating whether to work full-time after her youngest child started kindergarten, noting feelings of guilt.

Economic pressures and marketplace limitations dictate decisions for most of the workforce. Yet there’s also a cultural strain for some middle-class families.

When quizzed by Barrett about the source of her ambivalence, it became clear that neither her niece’s workplace nor her husband were applying pressure. Instead, the niece described a constant internal struggle as she juggled various commitments, unwilling to guiltlessly find time for herself.

Barrett ultimately suggested her niece prioritize her well-being, but she said the exchange reminded her how working mothers, in particular, often battle feelings of inadequacy.

A world where people can earn the same income with one less day of “full-time” work would obviously put a major dent in addressing that problem.

“I think from a female perspective, for the working mom, I think very often working moms do feel guilty that they’re not doing enough for everything,” Barrett remarked. “So that extra day really is helpful.”

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang couldn’t agree more. The global programs director for 4 Day Week Global, Pang is the author of a pair of books on the four-day workweek, including 2020’s “Shorter – Work Better, Smarter, and Less – Here’s How.”

He said the four-day week is impactful for everyone but “transformational” for working moms.

Pang recounted the story of a company chief telling him how before moving to a four-day workweek, his ideal staffer was a 25-year-old guy who didn’t have pets, who was always available to stay late.

“And what he needs now is not someone who can work 12 hours a day, because that’s no longer impressive,” Pang said. “What he wants is someone who has great time-management skills, who has experience, who can be ruthless about their time. And he says that mix of skills makes them now look to hire working moms, that they’ve got that combination of skills, and they’re often still kind of underemployed.”


In a phone interview last week, Pang said the four-day workweek movement has gained momentum over the past decade.

He emphasized how many workers waste two to three hours per day on unproductive tasks such as long meetings and outdated processes.

By addressing these inefficiencies, it is possible to accomplish in four days what currently takes five, he said.

But Pang pushed back hard on a notion from critics that the initiative only applies to knowledge economy workers.

“They can feel that way, but they’re wrong, to put it simply,” said the California-based Pang, who has lectured at Oxford, Stanford and UC Berkeley. “So it’s already the case that we’re seeing this in factories, in the hospitality industry, restaurants. The advantages of adopting a four-day workweek are manifold.”

Even in industries known for punishing hours, with unique circumstances, the benefits can run wide and deep. Pang gave the example of an accounting firm.

“So if during tax season, for example, an accounting firm that traditionally had to go from working 40-plus hours to 70 hours, after that company has gone to a four-day workweek, having to do overtime means having to go to like, 48 or 50 hours, which is still more, but it’s a lot less than it was in the past,” he said.

Pang also pointed to increased opportunities for exercise, healthy eating and sleep. He highlighted surveys that indicate people in four-day-a-week work programs gain an average of 30 minutes of sleep per night, leading to downstream benefits.

He’s also seen the four-day workweek improve the bottom line for businesses.

For instance, during a trial of a four-day workweek, Lux, an Edinburgh-based food and drink marketing agency, saw a 30 percent increase in profits and a 24 percent boost in productivity, CNBC reported last June.

“There are lots of companies where the finances have worked out so that either revenues are going up or they’re saving enough in those sick days in recruiting, in training, etc., so that you’re actually making a little more money because you’re not having to spend so much on job ads or hiring temp workers,” said Pang, who has given talks on the future of technology and work in venues ranging from CIA headquarters in Langley to the Googleplex in Silicon Valley.

All Things Considered 

The implementation costs are often negligible for companies, with no significant expenditures on new systems. Instead, the focus is on maximizing the effectiveness of existing tools.

However, there are considerations to keep in mind. Certain industries may find it more challenging to adopt the four-day workweek due to regulatory requirements or specific job characteristics. For example, jobs with high seasonality or those necessitating a continuous on-site presence, such as some construction work, pose obstacles to implementation.

Additionally, cultural norms and professional attitudes can impact the feasibility of shorter work weeks.

While some industries view long hours as a badge of honor, Pang mentioned examples of organizations within these sectors (including healthcare) that embraced the four-day workweek, illustrating it isn’t inherently incompatible with most any type of work.

“So I’m doing a project, for example, with a hospital group, and the nurse managers are 100 percent in favor of implementing a four-day week,” Pang said. “And they feel like they know how to do it. They know how to work together.”

To contextualize the current trend, Pang also stressed how the four-day week represents a resumption of a historical trend that was interrupted over the past few decades.

The movement gained traction after the pandemic forced companies to rethink their work structures rapidly.

Many organizations discovered the feasibility of remote work and collaborative tools, which are also instrumental in transitioning to a shorter work week.

This confluence of events has made the four-day workweek more viable and less radical in the eyes of business owners and human resource managers.

“Look, I think you can argue that what we’re seeing now with the four-day week is a resumption of a long historical trend that started more than 100 years ago and was interrupted for the last 30 or so,” Pang said. “Years between the oil shocks and recession and inflation in the mid ‘70s through the dot-com era and Gordon Gecko’s ‘greed is good’ kind of Wall Street-money-never-sleeps kind of world. And the four-day week, in a sense, takes up a trend that had been interrupted for a while but we’re now realizing we can return to now.”

It’s Hard Work

While the benefits of a four-day workweek appear increasingly clear in many cases, Pang acknowledged the ongoing effort required to maintain its effectiveness.

“You have to keep working at it continuously, even places that have been doing it for five years,” he said. “I go in and folks will tell me, ‘We’re still learning things about how to do this right. We’re still refining it.’”

It’s also not just a program for big corporations. Pang said the majority of companies that have moved to four-day workweeks through the program maintain fewer than 20 employees, and many carry less than 10.

Even a small country store in Vermont, Butcher & Pantry, was able to thread the needle and make the transition.

Katherine Regnier, the CEO and founder of Coconut Software, a customer engagement platform, saw during the thick of the pandemic how workforce culture was quickly evolving. She enacted a four-day workweek to keep her employees “happy, motivated and engaged,” as she put it in a blog post at the time.
“I’ve heard from our recruiting team that it is absolutely helping us find and place top notch people in Coconut,” she stated in December 2021, as the trial was unfolding. “Culture, especially in a post-COVID world, is going to be one of the most important considerations for people and where they work.”
Personal Perspective 

I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention how I’m probably an imperfect author of this story.

As a self-confessed workaholic who owns and operates a business with a small band of employees running on empty eight days a week, I directly confront the friction between abstract ideals giving way to practical realities.

However, in another sense, researching the topic has allowed me to envision a slightly larger future iteration of our little Examiner engine chugging along more effectively with less punishing personnel hours, despite the nature of news, if organized carefully.

Overall, it seems safe to conclude that the workforce’s demand for a healthier work-life balance constitutes a positive development, even if it’ll take a little while for the exact look and feel of mutually beneficial workplace enhancement to take fuller form in some sectors.

But given the pace of current change, for better and for worse, it definitely doesn’t appear as if we’ll have to wait another full century.

The arrival of a new and more enlightened work normal has already started to sprout.

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