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More companies are trying out the 4-day workweek. But it might not be for everyone

For some workers, the four-day workweek has been a dream and helped restore their work/life balance. Others say it doesn't create as much flexibility as it might seem.

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LaDonna Speiser has been working four days a week since February. She says she's not ready to give it up.
LaDonna Speiser has been working four days a week since February. She says she's not ready to give it up. Kyle Green for NPR

On a recent summer Friday, 59-year old LaDonna Speiser takes her grand-nephew to the pool and helps her mother-in-law with errands. She visits the eye doctor and makes an appointment with a physical therapist. She even spends some time reading on the patio. She's able to do all this because her employer, a company called Healthwise, offers her a four-day workweek.

With the pandemic and the "Great Resignation" making it harder for companies to attract and retain talent, a growing number of white-collar employers like Healthwise are exploring new avenues to make work life more appealing. One of them — the four-day workweek — considers if workers really need to be working 40 hours a week. As part of its Work Life series, NPR's Morning Edition looked into how realistic this actually is.

Speiser's company started experimenting with four-day workweek last year. Based in Boise, Idaho, the company produces health education materials for hospitals and health plans. It recently completed a pilot trial run by the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global, which helps organizations with the transition away from the traditional five-day workweek.

LaDonna Speiser is pictured outside of her company, Healthwise, on June 29. The Idaho-based company experimented with four-day workweeks last year and made it permanent in February.
LaDonna Speiser is pictured outside of her company, Healthwise, on June 29. The Idaho-based company experimented with four-day workweeks last year and made it permanent in February. Kyle Green for NPR

For some companies, the benefits are clear

For Healthwise, cutting back to four work days was actually good for business.

"Our revenues went up this year more than we had budgeted," says CEO Adam Husney. "We've delivered on products on time or ahead of where we have done. I would say the things we are able to measure have all been positive."

What's more, these positives are tied to one of the objectives of the trial — which was to learn how a four-day workweek can help employees with burnout.

"There are many people who are spending more time at the office than they need to," says Juliet Schor, an economist and sociology professor at Boston College. Schor is the author of the book The Overworked American, and leads research at 4 Day Week Global.

"If work were organized more efficiently," she says, "[employees] could get it done in a shorter period of time, go home, and have a better life."

Companies that join the pilot program are asked to test a four day workweek for six months. The requirement for participation is no reduction in pay but substantial reduction in hours. The vast majority of participants have gone to four days with 32 hours of work, with Friday as the most common day off. So far, 22 companies in the U.S. and 70 in the U.K. have enrolled in a trial this year. Companies in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are also involved.

Depending on the job, it might not be a realistic option

Juliet Schor, an economist and sociology professor, sits for a portrait at her office at Boston College on June 27, 2022.
Juliet Schor, an economist and sociology professor, sits for a portrait at her office at Boston College on June 27, 2022. Vanessa Leroy | NPR

To be sure, the experiment isn't for everyone.

"If you look at the companies that are pioneering the four-day week, tech is very much at the forefront," says Schor. Kickstarter, with roughly 100 employees, is a notable company in the trial. "White collar work is the sort of dominant work at the moment," she notes.

Indeed, it seems that it may be easier to try out a four-day workweek in an office environment, where there is often more flexibility when it comes to schedules, than in other industries. When NPR called a manufacturing plant in the northeast that makes steel products, a floor manager who answered the phone said he didn't have time to grab a supervisor to speak on the record. Before hanging up, he said the plant was so slammed because of supply chain shortages and backlogged orders, that there's no way they could make a four-day workweek happen.

But when it comes to white-collar work, one of Schor's objectives is to see if a reduction in work hours is actually feasible. She brought up an experiment with health care workers in Sweden, where nurses were given six hour days instead of their usual eight hours to combat stress.

"What these experiments showed is that the nurses getting the six hour days, as we would expect ... were happier," says Schor. "But the care facilities had to hire people for those extra hours. And what they found was although there was a small increase in costs, a lot of those additional salaries were offset by lower health care costs and lower unemployment for their existing workforce."

In the end, Schor says the four-day workweek ends up being less costly for employers – not just in revenue, but also in productivity.

"And of course, the patient outcomes improved," says Schor about the Swedish trial. "So I think we are going to start to see more of this in health care precisely because they are suffering a lot of burnout. The other thing in health care, of course, is mistakes. When you've got tired and stressed employees, you're more likely to make mistakes."

Some HR professionals see downsides

Some experts say there are clear downsides of the four-day workweek that are important to consider. While Healthwise gives employees Fridays off, some human resources professionals say that can create a scheduling challenge.

David Lewis, CEO of the human resources consulting firm OperationsInc, says the post-COVID-19 workplace has already made it difficult for employees to unplug.

"I keep hearing more and more that 'I work at home' or 'I live at work'," says Lewis. "People don't turn their laptops off, they don't disconnect their telephones."

For Lewis, the fundamental aspects of work-life balance are at play. In one recent study, researchers in New Zealand found that while employees were attracted by the four-day workweek, in practice several aspects of their work intensified after the change, including pressure from managers around things like performance.

"How exactly are you going to move people in the exact opposite direction to think about three days versus two days being disconnected when [they're] struggling to disconnect for even a couple of hours during the course of an entire seven-day week?"

Similarly, for Lindsay Tjepkema, the CEO of a marketing technology company called Casted, Fridays off is an exciting bumper sticker of an idea but it doesn't necessarily make her employees' lives any better.

Casted CEO and cofounder, Lindsay Tjepkema leads a senior leadership meeting at the Casted office building in Indianapolis on June 29.
Casted CEO and cofounder, Lindsay Tjepkema leads a senior leadership meeting at the Casted office building in Indianapolis on June 29. Kaiti Sullivan for NPR

"Real flexibility is being able to say, 'Hey I want to start my workday late' or 'I want to cut out early on Wednesdays for kid reasons, for friend reasons, for personal reasons, for pet reasons,'" says Tjepkema. "So if I mandate that flexibility at our company means you get Fridays off, that's not flexibility. That's mandating a day off."

The trials that Schor is helping lead are still ongoing, so there isn't enough final data to draw conclusions about how much companies can save or how much better employee performance and satisfaction are because of a four-day workweek. And of course, this is all happening in a tough economy. Inflation is hurting companies and workers alike. Interest rates are one the rise, leaving many business leaders bracing for a recession. Even so, Schor is convinced the four-day workweek has irreversible momentum.

"If you think about things like ... Friday off every other week, Fridays off in the summer, no meeting Fridays ... Friday is just gradually becoming a day in which people are less plugged in to their job," says Schor. "And one of the things we know is that once people have something like this, it's very hard to take it away."

LaDonna Speiser is living this. She's been working a regular four-day week since February. When we asked her if she'd be willing to give that up for a different job somewhere else, she sort of laughed and said her life has changed with this new schedule. She has more of it now and she's not so ready to give that up.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is Wednesday, which means most of us are halfway through our workweek. There are millions of Americans who work untraditional hours, but on the whole, U.S. employees are at it Monday through Friday. And that schedule comes with a soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living.

MARTIN: But wait. What if it didn't have to be this way? What if instead of punching a clock for 40 hours, five days a week, you only had to work 32 hours, four days a week? In some ways, the shorter workweek could feel more intense - same work, less time to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

PARTON: (Singing) They just use your mind, and they never give you credit.

MARTIN: But then it's over, and you, the employee, get more of your non-working life back. We're continuing our series on how our work lives have changed since the pandemic. And today we are examining the four-day workweek. A lot of employers in white-collar industries are rethinking their employment practices now. Do workers really need to be in the office all the time? Can work be done more efficiently from home? And some are actually experimenting with shorter weeks. Tech companies like Kickstarter and Buffer have entered pilot programs on this. California even tried to introduce a bill that would require large businesses to pay employees overtime if they worked more than 32 hours a week, although that has been shelved for the moment.

JULIET SCHOR: There are many people who are spending more time at the office than they need to, and if work were organized more efficiently, they could get it done in a shorter period of time, go home and have a better life.

MARTIN: This is Juliet Schor. She's an economist and author of the book "The Overworked American." What was your first job, Juliet?

SCHOR: I did dishwashing at college. I guess that's the closest. Then I went to Williams College. That was my first real job.

MARTIN: As a teacher, what are the expectations about work in higher education - how many hours you put in?

SCHOR: The culture was one where new faculty were in their offices all the time, pretty much. And my friends were other people in the department. And I spent long, long hours in the office.

MARTIN: Which is a thing Juliet Schor says Americans shouldn't have to do. And she's made the issue a big part of her life's work. Juliet is helping lead a set of trials in several different countries, including here in the U.S., where companies try out the four-day workweek for six months. Twenty-two American companies have already enrolled in a trial this year. Seventy companies in the U.K. have done so, as well.

SCHOR: If you look at the companies that are pioneering the four-day week, tech is very much at the forefront. The companies who are doing this and who are joining the trials that I'm researching are finding that they can reorganize work in ways that allows people to do as much in four days as they were doing in five. White-collar work is the sort of dominant work. And we're also seeing this in nonprofits, which is pretty interesting. But as the trials grow, we're finding new industries coming in - so a restaurant chain in the U.S. trial, health care institutions, we're starting to see, other kinds of service organizations.

MARTIN: Juliet Schor says she has three objectives in these trials. The first is to show how a four-day workweek helps employees.

SCHOR: There's a growing body of research showing people are less stressed, have better well-being, less burnout, they can sleep more - very important - and have more energy, better job satisfaction, etc. And also that - sort of social impacts of that - they have more time for family and community. The second is that it's feasible for the companies. For some, it will improve their productivity, profitability, revenue, etc. For others, it may just be a neutral change but one that makes their employees better off. And, you know, in the long run, the companies will benefit from that. And then the third impact - the one that has sort of less evidence to date at the company level, but which is very important - is impacts on carbon emissions. If people are commuting one fewer day a week, that's going to have a big impact on transportation emissions.

MARTIN: I imagine, though, you have employers coming to you and saying there's just no way we are going to be able to afford this, that it's not actually going to cut our costs, but potentially we could end up having to pay more. You have to onboard more employees to cover all those new shifts.

SCHOR: There's some interesting experiments from Sweden with health care workers, nurses in particular, who were given six-hour days because there's a lot of stress and burnout in nursing. And what these experiments showed is that the nurses getting the six-hour days, as we would expect, were more productive, they were happier, but the care facilities had to hire people for those extra hours. But what they found was, although there was a small increase in costs, a lot of those additional salaries were offset by lower health-care costs and lower unemployment for their existing workforces. The other thing in health care, of course, is mistakes, so that when you've got tired and stressed employees, you're more likely to get mistakes. So there are ways to make up the costs other than just asking employees to fit all their work into 80% of the time, which is what you're seeing in the white-collar context.

MARTIN: So right there, you heard Schor acknowledge that there are some challenges with a four-day workweek. White-collar industries basically have to ask their employees to finish the same amount of work, but in less time.

LADONNA SPICER: It's a lot busier, obviously, when you're trying to do five days of work in four days.

MARTIN: This is LaDonna Spicer.

SPICER: And I'm the director of the project management office here at Health Wise.

MARTIN: Health Wise is a company in Boise, Idaho, that produces health education materials for hospitals, providers and health plans. The company experimented with four-day workweeks last year, and they made it permanent in February. LaDonna says it has made her way more efficient.

SPICER: You do really have to think through how long your meetings need to be, and this is something we've done a lot of already, is be really well prepared for meetings, so it takes some thoughtful preparation to really be able to optimize your work.

MARTIN: We talked to the CEO of Health Wise, Adam Husney, and he said cutting back to four workdays has been good for business.

ADAM HUSNEY: Our revenues went up this year more than we had budgeted. Our attrition rate has gone down, too. I think we've lost one person in the past three months. We've delivered on products on time or ahead of where we have done. The things we are able to measure have all been positive.

MARTIN: And LaDonna gets an extra day for all the life that happens outside of work, like hanging with her grandnephew at the pool.

SPICER: Do you want me to hold on to that for you?

MARTIN: A trip to the eye doctor.

SPICER: Hi. I came in Friday to pick my glasses up and...

MARTIN: Even a physical therapy appointment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Then, we'll start on this right side, so we'll start with some traction...

SPICER: OK.

MARTIN: But four days a week is not realistic for other companies. We called up a manufacturing plant in the Northeast that makes steel products. The floor manager who answered the phone told us he didn't have time to grab one of his bosses to speak on tape, but before he hung up, he said they are so slammed because of supply chain shortages and backlogged orders that there's no way they could make a four-day workweek happen. We heard this from HR professionals and other experts, too. There's too much work, and we don't have enough employees as it is. And even if you can make it work, they say it would be a scheduling nightmare.

LINDSAY TJEPKEMA: The idea of the four-day workweek started bubbling up a few months ago. I mean, you saw it, I saw it, the whole world started to see it become a thing.

MARTIN: This is Lindsay Tjepkema. She's the CEO of a marketing technology company called Casted.

TJEPKEMA: And I couldn't really put my finger on why it was bothering me so much, because I wanted a four-day workweek. I wanted to give my team a four-day workweek. But I just - I couldn't shake the feeling that it just didn't land with me. I was like, this isn't going to work. It just doesn't make sense.

MARTIN: Lindsay told me that Fridays off is an exciting bumper sticker of an idea, but it's not all it's made out to be when it comes to making her employees' lives better.

TJEPKEMA: Real flexibility is being able to say, hey, I want to start my workday late, or I want to cut out early on Wednesdays for kid reasons, for friend reasons, for personal reasons, for pet reasons. I want to teach a yoga class during the lunch break, you know, five days a week - whatever it may be, that's flexibility. So if I go and mandate that flexibility at our company means you get Fridays off, that's not flexibility. That's mandating a day off.

MARTIN: The trials Juliet Schor is helping lead are still going on, so there isn't enough data to draw conclusions about how much companies can actually save or how much better employee performance and satisfaction are because of a four-day workweek. That won't happen for months. And of course, we have to remember that the economy is sort of in a bad way right now. Inflation rates are crippling. Interest rates have gone way up as a result. And some top American CEOs are bracing for a recession. Despite all of that, though, Juliet Schor is convinced that the four-day workweek has irreversible momentum.

SCHOR: If you think about things like those nine-day schedules where they get a Friday off every other week, or Fridays off in the summer, early closings in the summer - Friday just gradually becoming a day in which people are sort of less plugged into their job and doing less work - one of the things we know is that once people have something like this, it's very hard to take it away.

MARTIN: That's definitely true for LaDonna Spicer. She's been working a four-day week since this past February. And when we asked her if she'd be willing to give that up for a different job somewhere else, she sort of laughed and said her life has changed with this new schedule. She has more of it now, and she is not so ready to give that up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "9 TO 5")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Working 9 to 5, barely getting by. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.