The four-day workweek has been gaining momentum around the world in the last year. A majority of employers who’ve tried the schedule, predominately in Europe, plan to continue to pay employees for 40 hours for 32 hours of work. The decision comes after they tested the waters with a six-month pilot program organized by researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.
In Canada, an overwhelming majority—91 percent—of 1,449 senior managers surveyed by Robert Half favored some type of four-day workweek, although 45 percent favored a four-day week with employees working longer, 10-hour shifts.
But is a four-day, 32-hour workweek feasible in the U.S.?
“If you asked me three years ago, I would say it was a passing trend, but I think COVID has changed the lens [on] how we work,” said Julie Voges, SHRM-SCP, regional managing director of HR at Atlanta-based OneDigital, an insurance, financial services and HR consulting firm. “This is just an iteration of how we work. I think it’s inevitable. I think management needs to get its head around it. I think COVID has helped move the needle.”
U.S.-based organizations with global footprints will need to adapt to remain competitive and have alignment between domestic and internationally based employees, she said. There’s also the matter of the employer proposition, which has changed, she pointed out.
“Employees have the cards to play … they’re demanding more paid time off, they want the hybrid, they want the remote [options]. … Employers have to be really creative in the total rewards package,” she said. Very few people, she added, wouldn’t be enticed by getting paid 40 hours for 32 hours of work.
Employers also are cognizant that the birth rate decline and the number of Baby Boomers leaving the workforce are creating hiring challenges.
“All those things together are creating the perfect storm,” she said.
Job candidates already can find LinkedIn postings for U.S. employers offering four-day workweeks. Two six-month global pilot programs in 2022—primarily in the U.S. and Ireland—have been “a resounding success,” according to one report.
Movement in the States
Almost 60 school districts across Texas are switching to four-day school weeks, with some of those districts approving the change for the 2023-24 school year, including one district that serves almost 6,500 students. The strategy aims to prevent teacher burnout, help with recruiting and improve student attendance rates.
There have been similar efforts at the state level. In February, Maryland lawmakers proposed a bill setting up a five-year pilot program that would give a state income tax credit to employers that moved at least 30 employees from a five-day to a four-day workweek without reducing pay or benefits. However, that bill was pulled in March; sponsors plan to seek a state labor department study.
California legislators introduced a bill in February 2022 that would create a 32-hour workweek for employers with 500 or more employees; it died in committee. The Society for Human Resource Management opposed the legislation and called it a “one-size-fits-all approach” that would create a “significant logistical burden for HR professionals, especially at companies with operations in multiple states.”
Voges thinks if the four-day workweek concept takes hold on the coasts, “there’s going to be a trickle-down effect, and it’s going to … happen quickly.”
The federal government has to play a leading role, she said, as it did 85 years ago when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, limiting the workweek to 44 hours. Two years later, it amended the FLSA to create today’s 40-hour workweek.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., reintroduced his 32-hour Workweek Act to Congress this year. If passed, it would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]
Private Employers’ Options
There’s nothing stopping employers from implementing a four-day workweek, pointed out Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor professor of management at The Wharton School and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania.
“As far as I can tell, employers have no interest in a 32-hour week,” he said. “At least as presented and proposed in legislation, it means paying employees for a full week—40 hours for hourly-paid—but only having to work 32 hours, and for hourly employees, they [would] receive overtime pay after 32 hours rather than 40 at present.”
Some organizations—and workers—are skeptical about the so-called advantages to a shortened workweek, The Wall Street Journal reported, with some workers wondering how they would be able to manage workloads and customer and client needs while putting in fewer hours. What they don’t want, The Wall Street Journal noted, were 10-hour shifts over four days.
Many manufacturers moved to a four-day workweek prior to the pandemic—but with 10-hour shifts, noted Isidro “Izzy” Galicia, president and CEO of Incito Consulting Group in San Francisco. The ideal way to deploy this model, he said, is with overlapping schedules—some teams working Monday to Thursday 10-hour shifts while others work Tuesday to Friday.
“While I believe it is absolutely feasible to deploy a four-day workweek in which employees are paid for 40 hours but work 32,” Galicia said, “a manufacturing environment provides an extra layer of complexity that may not be the same as in a service and transactional environment. In manufacturing, production targets are established based on customer demand and must be met over a certain period of time.
“If an [eight-hour] shift is removed from the equation, you then have 32 fewer hours per month to meet production goals. When this happens, many manufacturing organizations find themselves overburdening the workforce, which is in direct contrast to employee well-being.”
Things to Consider
Implementing a four-day workweek can require tinkering with how shifts and annual leave are handled along with “removing or improving work processes to get the same output in in four days,” Bloomberg reported.
Qwick, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based staffing platform for food and beverage businesses, rolled out a pilot program for four months in 2022 for its 172 employees after extensively researching other organizations that had experimented with a shorter workweek.
The new schedule was well-received, said Retta Kekic, chief marketing officer, but since Qwick serves the highly seasonal hospitality industry, it extended the pilot through June 2023 to evaluate the effect on employees and to compare week-to-week output and performance over a full year.
Employees work 32 hours Monday through Thursday with a rotating schedule for the week and weekend to support clients in the hospitality industry. Before the pilot, employees worked 38 hours weekly.
“Adjusting the business and team workflow to the four-day workweek has been an iterative process, but one we have accomplished without adding contractors or part-time workers to the team,” Kekic told SHRM Online.
“It’s important that we’re frequently auditing calendars to make sure meetings are efficient and effective. We also continuously evaluate our processes to see if there are more efficient ways of accomplishing our work while ensuring we’re focused on projects that have the best and biggest impact.”
Additionally, employees are surveyed quarterly to check how the new schedule is affecting their work and lives.
“Morale has increased—the share of employees who report feeling well-rested and ready for work on Monday mornings increased 32 percentage points to 96 percent after we started the four-day workweek.
“We know a team that is recharged, rested and ready for the week can contribute their most productive and creative work. We also saw an 8 percent jump in the number of employees who reported that they’re able to think of creative solutions in order to solve unique challenges and problems at work.”
One aspect the company didn’t anticipate, Kekic noted, was “the difficulty of handling holidays, which can further shorten an already truncated workweek. … So, when a holiday is observed on a Monday or midweek, we will adjust the schedule so our team is on and working the Friday of that week.”
Qwick CEO Jamie Baxter wrote in a February 2022 blog post that one of the reasons driving the change was the belief “that a four-day workweek will result in increased productivity and creativity, all while positively impacting the health and wellness of our team.”
It’s also a recruitment strategy and aligns with Qwick’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, he noted. Many of its employees are caregivers; the hope is that this will alleviate their stress and offset the cost of child care, he wrote.
Employers need to be clear on why they would change to a shorter workweek, Galicia pointed out.
“Employers need to make certain,” he said, “that they remember the reason for the four-day workweek … to recruit and retain top talent by demonstrating a true investment in their employee’s well-being.”
Other SHRM resources
Are Shorter Workweeks Good for Business? HR Magazine, Winter 2022.
Four-Day Workweek Gaining Momentum, SHRM Online, September 2022.
What Employers Should Know Before Trying a 4-Day Workweek, SHRM Online, June 2022.
The Manager’s Take on the 4-Day Workweek, SHRM Online, March 2022.
Want to Switch to a 4-Day Workweek? Here’s How to Run a Pilot, SHRM Online, January 2022.