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The four-day week will solve some of work’s biggest problems – but only if companies can adapt

The four-day week will solve some of work's biggest problems - but only if companies can adapt
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Young man leaving the office pushing a bicycle accompanied by his male colleague talking together and looking happy

Image: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty

Knowledge workers have made up their minds about how they want to work to look from now on. For most, that means not having to drag themselves out of bed and into an office five days a week – or at all, in some cases.

But location is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to redesigning work. Professionals are not only wrangling for control over where they do their work, but when. And it seems the answer to that is increasingly “not on Fridays, please.”

The four-day week presents something of a utopian vision of a world where a work-life balance is exactly that – a harmonious and (near) equal balance of working and not working. One less day of work and one day more of rest and relaxation. Twenty-four whole hours of additional free leisure time each week. Imagine that!

The four-day week in itself isn’t new. Some companies have been working on these models for years, often by compressing a regular work week into fewer days. In this case, a longer working day would be the trade-off for having to only come in (or log on) four days a week. Would you rather work five eight-hour days, or four 10-hour days? Personally, I don’t think either bears significant appeal over the other, even if I do like the idea of ​​a three-day weekend.

But that’s not always the case, and increasingly, employers are beginning to explore how cutting hours can be a vehicle for happier, more motivated staff who are more engaged, and thus, less likely to quit. It’s also an understandably powerful tool for attracting talent at a time when hiring activity is off the charts – particularly in tech, IT and other specialized professions. If you’re a smaller company that doesn’t have the budget to offer the same salaries as a larger rival organization, giving the gift of time and a better work-life balance could prove an effective incentive.

SEE: The four-day work week is coming: Here’s what it could mean for you

Trials of shorter working weeks have largely proven successful. Microsoft Japan, for instance, reported a 40% increase in productivity after moving to a four-day week, meanwhile Iceland’s famous four-year trial was deemed such a success that many of the country’s workers are now able to request to work a shorter week . Companies that I’ve spoken to say that moving their staff to a four-day week has boosted morale and wellbeing, and academic research also indicates that cutting hours actually leads to better output, rather than worse.

And let’s not forget the potential a shorter working week could have for promoting gender equality in the workplace, not just by making it easier for partners to share caregiving responsibilities more evenly, but also by making it easier for women to remain in full-time employment after having children – reducing the gender pay gap as a result.

A four-day week won’t work for everyone, and it’s not always a case of telling everyone they can have Fridays off. What happens if a client has an urgent complaint at 5:30pm on a Thursday, for instance?

Trying to fit everything that needs to be done over the course of a typical week into fewer days might also cause scheduling headaches, particularly if your week consists of numerous meetings, catch-ups and brainstorming sessions. That’s not going to help with stress, which is one of the main things the four-day week is supposed to address. Then again, maybe this just means that employers will be forced to cut out unnecessary meetings in order to let employees get on with – you know – actual work.

All these questions may be answered when worldwide pilots wrap up later this year. If they prove successful, business leaders will be faced with a solid argument for moving their staff to a shorter working week. Those who resist without any practical, logistical or operational reason for doing so are likely to find themselves in the perilous position of having to explain why.

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