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Could a 4-day Workweek Make You More Productive?

by
Aug 28, 2013

You’ve no doubt heard of the 4-hour workweek, popularized by Tim Ferriss, however most would agree that the concept of reducing your working hours so dramatically is more of a marketing hook than an achievable schedule.

So if you don’t belong to the lucky minority who can fit their week’s work into 4 hours, how about 4 days?

The idea of a reduced workweek with a 3-day weekend is one that seems to be growing in popularity worldwide, and there have been some interesting studies into its effects.

While researching this article I found several examples of companies that have successfully implemented a 4-day work week, and they seem to fall into two camps: those that have lengthened the work day to fit in the same number of hours of work in  fewer days, and those that have reduced weekly working hours overall.

Are 10-hour days the answer?

Web development agency Reusser Design recently discussed in their company blog how they had lengthened the working day to 10 hours by changing their working hours to 6.30am to 5pm, Monday to Thursday and compressing 40 hours of work into just 4 days.

Team members are rotated in on Fridays so that there is always someone available to deal with clients, but otherwise the employees are free to work on their own projects or enjoy leisure time with their families.

A 3-day weekend may sound worth a couple of extra hours at work each day, but personally, I can’t help feeling that restructuring the working schedule in this way has missed the point of the 4-day workweek.

Companies considering  this arrangement may tout studies about employee satisfaction and improved work-life balance, but in actuality, finances are behind many corporate decisions to move to a 4-hour workweek.

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, Utah was the first US state to implement an official 4-day week for all state employees. The hopes were that by cutting a day from the working week, utilities and commuting costs would be reduced .

An initial study seemed to find that the experiment was a success. In the first year costs were reduced by 13%. However, this initial success was short-lived, and by 2011 the initiative was scrapped as no further savings were measured.

Working only 4 days a week has obvious advantages in terms of saving commuting time, CO2 emissions and company expenditure in heating and lighting, but there are also several downsides.

Employees with families are likely to struggle with childcare arrangements for the extended working day, and the concept that working a longer day will make you more productive is widely contested. Reusser Design claims that “longer work days mean more concentration time,” but I find this argument to be flawed. We are not physiologically designed to concentrate for long periods of time, and doing so causes stress and fatigue.

A shorter workweek without a longer workday

So what about those companies that adopted the 4-day workweek without increasing hours?

Carsonified, the company behind a series of conferences for web designers and developers and the Treehouse coding tutorial site, have a 4-day workweek with hours between 9am and 6pm – similar to many other companies with a traditional 5-day week.

Work hours are reduced around the theory that, as humans, we will always make our work fill the time available. The idea is that, by limiting the number of working hours  and expecting the same amount of work done, you are forced into being more productive.

Software company 37signals is another company  that has taken this approach and run as a 4-day week business between the months of May and October. During this time, employees work only 32 hours a week, but the amount of work that gets done in the summer and winter is the same, despite the difference in hours.

Many studies have found that working more hours does not necessarily mean that more work gets done. In fact long workweeks can actually have a negative impact on productivity. (See the relatively technical study here.)

A 2011 research paper by the International Labour Organization states that between 30 and 40 hours of work per week is the optimal number for productivity. More than this and productivity starts to drop and quality of life factors are reduced. Based on the results of this research, a person who works 50 hours a week is only as productive as one who works 35 hours, so those extra 15 hours are essentially wasted.

Other studies have shown that long working days (typically 11 hours or more) can increase the risks of heart disease and depression as well as negatively impacting one’s personal life and relationships. Several of the most productive countries in Europe including the UK, Germany, Sweden and Denmark have cottoned onto this fact and banned companies from asking their employees to work more than 48 hours a week.

The conclusion seems to be clear: if you want to lead a happier, more productive life, work smarter, not harder.

Tips for implementing a 4-day week

The key to increasing productivity while reducing work hours is to become incredibly efficient in the hours in which you do work. This means setting fixed work hours and sticking to them, focusing on priority tasks rather than wasting time on ‘busy work’ and outsourcing where possible.

Distractions are the main killer of productivity, and to be successful with a 4-day workweek, it is vital to eliminate distractions wherever possible to maximize your concentration during the day, optimize your workflow and get more done.

This may mean turning your phone off, avoiding social networking and blog reading when you should be working, and having designated times for checking email and other necessary but distracting tasks.

Many of us now need to use social networks, read blogs, or do other research as part of our jobs, but the potential of these activities to distract us is enormous. The impact can be reduced by using filtering software, like SpecificFeeds, which concentrates the information that is most useful to you and eliminates the excess noise.

How many hours do you work each week? Have you tried implementing a 4-hour workweek, or would you like to? We’d love to hear about your experiences of alternative working arrangements and how they have affected your productivity.

 

 

 

Comments

  • shawn May 12, 2014 3:02 am

    I’m not sure why more employers are not going to a four day work week. Especially employers where employees are hourly. I can see the potential of no benefit for a salaried worker, but when someone has to punch a clock they are there and should be working the entire time. A hybrid that you didn’t mention is summer hours. Which is working 4 nine hour days and getting off early on Friday. I believe almost everyone wants to get off work early on Friday.

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