An interesting news feature on NPR reported on a company called Perpetual Guardian which launched successful 4-day work week program for their employees. People are paid their full five-day wage, as long as they get their work done in four days. Not only have the employees gotten their weekly work done in four, they report lower stress, better work-life balance and higher engagement scores. As a result of strong interest in this topic, CEO Andrew Barnes has written a book and set up a foundation to share what they have learned with other organizations.
While I am a fan of paying people for their productive output rather than simply a wage tied to a number of hours worked, I am a bit skeptical about the 4-day week being the future of work. This feels like one of those inspiring business stories revolving around a deceptively simple and alluring concept that gains popularity and fades. Such business concepts go wrong when applied in haste or without consideration of context.
Here are some reasons for my skepticism.
Arbitrariness. Why four days? Why not three? What is the right number of days or hours of work for humans to be productive? This depends on the job and its working conditions. It may also depend on the person doing the work. Ideally, no single day or series of days is so stressful that our bodies and minds require two or three full days to recover. One could argue that working fewer hours, seven days per week, with less time wasted commuting, has benefits. There is a biological basis for timing and sequencing our work and rest periods. What is the scientific reasoning that ties working four days to improved performance and personal well-being? “As long as it works, who cares?” we may say. But if we don’t understand why it works, we don’t know whether success of a four-day week is due to chance, correlation or causation.
Applies mainly to knowledge work. The 4-day work week seems mainly suited to knowledge work. There is nothing wrong with a good idea that works for some workers but not others, as long as it doesn’t harm people. Unlike knowledge work people working in mining, farming, forestry, fishing, manufacturing, trucking and construction are paced by machines, animals, geographic distance, weather conditions or how fast a body can move. Animals and crops require daily attention while they grow. Half-build houses need to be finished while the sun shines. While it’s possible to physically unburden ourselves, make our work simpler, and improve productivity by 20% or more in these jobs, there may be too many variables out of our control to do the work of five days in four.
Highly productive organizations benefit less. An across-the-board 20% productivity improvement is easy for organizations full of waste who haven’t engaged in people-driven continuous improvement before. This type of improvement is challenging for organizations that have already worked for years to improve their processes. There simply is not enough slack to create a one-time 20% across-the-board productivity bump. Organizations that have spent years removing waste, burden and variation from their work through continuous improvement may find themselves unable to pay people five days’ wages for four days’ work without incurring a significant financial penalty. That said, the four-day week challenge may be a way for some very productive and mature organizations to unlock further process innovation.
Artifact versus actual good thinking. The risk when adopting an improvement method, Lean tool or management model is that we copy the artifacts of good thinking, not the good thinking itself. When we start by deciding that 4 is the right number of days and try to cut slack out of our work, we may end up working harder and not smarter. Or we may leave slack on the table, doing in four days the work that could be done in three. In other words, if we were only doing 20-30 hours of productive work during the week to begin with, we needed very little innovation or creativity to meet the challenge of doing “5 days of work” in 4 days. These are one-time, superficial adjustments and not sustainable changes in organizational capability, mindset or behavior. When we arrive at a model of working smarter over four-days as a result of many cycles of improvement, we are more likely to have developed the thinking skills needed to sustain higher levels of productivity in the face of changing conditions.
Zero waste versus the zero-day week. The long-term problem with adopting the 4-day approach is that productivity inevitably meets entropy. When the productivity gain from the 4-day week model begins to erode, the response may be to do more of what worked in the past; reduce the work week to 3 days to motivate higher productivity. This may work. But if we continue down this path, we eventually face a zero workday denominator and the impossible challenge of achieving infinite productivity. The four-day work week challenge does not motivate continuous improvement, while the zero waste challenge does.
The most important sentence in the TED talk video on the Four-Day Week by Andrew Barnes is, “We challenged our team to think how they would work differently” about their processes, how they would manage their time, and how they would maintain service levels and productivity working four days per week instead of five. The future of work is not the 4-day week. Four may be too many days, or too few. The future of work is creating environments that are respectful of people as individuals rather than as units of labor, asking people to be accountable for their productivity, and setting the challenge to build systems that increase free time and prosperity for all.