How does less work fit in a fast-paced, growth-focused, 24/7 available economy? Recently, Iceland made headlines after it reported “overwhelming success” over a 4-year trial of a shorter workweek in the public sector. The Reykjavík City Council and the national government ran the trials between 2015-2019, during which workers were paid the same amount of money for 35-36 hours a week. Now, the country is transitioning the majority of its workforce towards shorter working times.
And Iceland is not a singular example: elsewhere in Europe, Spain has also launched a pilot project for companies interested in testing the 4-day workweek. Also in the private sector, Perpetual Guardian tested the 4-day workweek pilot for its 240 employees in New Zealand back in 2018. The pilot was a resounding success: employee survey results showed 20% increase in empowerment and commitment, 24% improvement in work-life balance, and 7% reduction in stress levels. Meanwhile, founder Andrew Barnes decided to launch the 4 Day Week, a US-based non-profit organization that guides the implementation of pilot programs around the world.
Employee benefits are not the only part of the equation. Various studies around the full-time working model indicate inefficiencies that require a fresh perspective. A UK study of close to 2000 full-time employees, for instance, found that the average productive time is only 2 hours and 53 minutes. The rest of time spent on social media, personal calls, talking to coworkers, food breaks, or searching for new jobs.
Parkinson’s law, which states that we tend to expand work to fill in the time available for it, is frequently used to explain why one extra day of work does not automatically translate into more work done.
The Recursive decided to look closer at the 4-day workweek approach from both employee and employer perspectives, with the following conclusions:
- It can improve mental health, as well as increase team morale and the ability to achieve more;
- It can bring more focus, better planning, new business perspectives, and ultimately higher revenues;
- There is no one-solution-fits-all approach, but instead different industries and business models will have to evaluate the benefits of working less and the ways to achieve it.
How the 4-day workweek improved mental health and the ability to achieve more
“The most impactful thing that a 4-day workweek had on me was the improvement of my mental health. I felt less stressed, I was more relaxed, and I could feel myself more rested,” Patricia Borlovan, a freelance writer and content marketer who has experience with the 4-day week at Cozmoslabs, tells The Recursive.
The realization of this type of benefits on the mind and body does not necessarily come from day one. In Patricia’s case, it wasn’t until a few months later that she fully recognized the impact working less had on her stress level and capacity to work.
So, how did working one day less impact her work? Was it more difficult to handle work each day? Quite the opposite.
“I started to become more and more focused on the work I was doing, and achieve more each day. It was not anymore the hamster wheel, where on Friday you are spaced out and tired, on Saturday you check all the housework, and on Sunday you already enter the work mood and start thinking about Monday,” Patricia adds.
Having had more rest in extended week-ends, helped Patricia put more energy and focus into each working day, to ultimately feel that she was achieving more than before.
For others, shorter workweeks can make all the difference in terms of settling the trade-off between negotiating shorter working hours and enjoying professional opportunities. This is the case for working mothers, for whom the extra day off can help a better balancing of child care and career advancement.
How a company grew the business by working less
For the model to prove its viability and scalability in the marketplace, all these employee benefits need to translate into a clear business case for employers. We further looked into the case of Cozmoslabs, a WordPress business based in Timisoara, Romania, which develops, maintains, and supports plugins.
Starting 2013, the team has fully embraced the 4-day workweek model with great results. Between 2013-2019, the team gradually increased product business revenues with 30% up to 80% on a yearly basis, reported CEO Adrian Spiac on the company website.
The premise behind was that although we traditionally have 2 days of weekend, we fully disconnect on Saturdays, with Sundays already serving as prep days for the week ahead. No major surprise here. So, what if we had one extra day to switch off from work? For Cozmoslabs, this change made all the difference in the world.
Below are some key advantages for business growth that the 4-day workweek brought to Cozmoslabs:
- New business perspective: Dedicating less time to day to day tasks, the CEO found that he had more time and mental space to look at the bigger picture. Improvement ideas often come during periods of rest, when we can revisit the challenges at hand with a fresh perspective.
- Better focus: The move also forced the company to revisit its business model in search of using its resources most effectively. This meant prioritizing the activities that brought the largest revenues. It turned out that focusing on products, while dropping services, helped the company grow product revenues by 80%, almost compensating for lost revenues from services.
- Improved planning: Generally, fewer working hours require that you spend time more wisely. This demands for better planning.
- Happy teams: The company CEO puts it simply: “Working less generally means happy teams, and happy teams are more productive.” In the case of Cozmoslabs, the shorter workweek translated into better team morale – people were quite excited to get to work on Mondays.
What challenges and limitations to keep in mind
The 4-day workweek model is not perfect. It’s important to keep in mind the challenges that may appear along the way, and how you can surpass them.
For instance, you may get tempted to work longer hours out of pressure to compensate for the extra free day. This is a recipe for disaster, said Adrian Spiac.
“Especially at the beginning, I was really tempted to work longer hours. By doing so my work quality suffered and my productivity dropped significantly. Plus, I didn’t enjoy it, so once I became aware of it I stopped.”
Another challenge may appear if you are paid by the hour. At first glance, since more working hours translate into a higher pay, reducing the working time is surely not good business? However, the other way to go about it is to raise your price, while delivering great work. Compensating for an extra day off can translate into a 25% increase in your current hourly rate.
In the end, that same day off translates into more than 50% free time added to your weekends – and that is priceless. It can free up time for personal hobbies, checking administrative stuff, and spending quality time with family and friends.
Even so, you may find that having Fridays off, for instance, may feel strange at first, especially when you are the only one in your network with this schedule. “All my friends were working on Fridays and I could meet almost no one over a coffee or plan anything like that,” Patricia recalls.
Finally, the 4-day working week may not readily apply to every industry and business model. Software companies may find it easier versus, for instance, manufacturing, retail, or media. Until wide-scale experiments are conducted across various sectors with clear insights and recommendations, it comes down to each company’s own ability to assess the effectiveness of its current model, determine the advantages of working less, or working flexibly, and the ways to do it.