How to Pull Off a 4 Day Workweek


The four-day workweek is back in the news after Microsoft Japan announced the results of their experiment earlier this year. A four-day workweek has been a talking point for more than a decade, but this case is particularly interesting because:

  • It comes from Microsoft, a huge brand not known for its innovative work culture
  • It comes from Japan, another huge brand not known for great working conditions
  • They claimed a 40% increase in productivity

Yeah. That’s a bit of a shocker. 

But before you jump into thinking “If Microsoft…in Japan…can pull this off, we should too!”, let’s take a closer look. 

A brief history of the workweek

The seven-day week is one of the few arbitrary time measurements humans use that isn’t connected to nature. Years, months, and days are all tightly coupled with cosmic phenomena. But the number of days in a week is manmade. 

The seven day week (usually with one day off for either religious or market functions) started with either Jewish or Babylonian cultures close to the 6th century BC. It spread to as far as India, China, and Japan. By the 4th or 5th century BC in Christendom, Sundays became the standard day off. 

During the turn of the 20th century was the first mention of expanding rest to more than a day. While he wasn’t the first to offer two full days off, Henry Ford made big news in 1926 when he shut down his factories on Saturdays and didn’t cut wages. Similar to how he doubled his workers salaries, he felt like offering additional time off was a way to look after the overall health of employees, while also creating a larger class of people who had the time and money to enjoy things like automobiles. It also ended up improving productivity at his plants. 

It took a few decades for the five on/two off system to spread, but it soon became accepted across the US and other parts of the world. 

New technological advancements led people like John Maynard Keyes and then-Vice President Richard Nixon to assume that the workweek would just keep getting shorter. 

Experiments with the four day workweek

Before Microsoft Japan, many companies have tried the pattern of four days on/three days off. Some, like governments in Utah and Slingshot SEO, have tried four ten-hour days. Others, like Jason Fried of Basecamp work a 32-hour week during the summer, and 40 hours the rest of the year.

Online education platform TreeHouse has a 32-hour week year-round. Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning company in New Zealand, has been one of the more vocal supporters of the 32-hour, four-day week. In fact, their founders, Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart started a separate community just to encourage other businesses to try it. The British Trade Union Congress has been advocating for a four day week for a few years now. 

Lasse Rheingans, who runs a consulting firm in Germany has experimented with a 5 hour working day, reducing the workweek down to 20 hours.

Thinking about a 4 day workweek?

There are lots of obvious benefits of a shorter workweek:

  • Easier recruiting 
  • Higher retention rates
  • Better employee morale
  • Smaller environmental impact
  • Fewer sick days
  • More time to care for children and elderly family members
  • Lower operating expenses

But what about productivity?

At the heart of the shorter workweek debate is if business owners can still get the same level of output on a shorter schedule. 

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands or contracts to the amount of time given. With advances in technology, it’s possible to get the same work done in less time, but very few have been willing to cut the hours. Jason Fried says, “When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.”

Lasse Rheingans, the guy with the five-hour workday likes the challenge of getting more done in less time. He said, “An an eight-hour day you can mask problems and cheat yourself. This simply isn’t possible within a five-hour day. It’s merciless. It highlights exactly which areas aren’t working and what to take care of—it’s like holding a magnifying glass to every flaw.”

Perpetual Guardian’s study noted equal productivity between a four and five day workweek. Microsoft Japan is talking about 40% increased productivity after reducing the work time by 20%! 

But the answer to greater productivity is not just to slash the hours.   


How to do the four day week right

If you tell everyone to stop showing up on Fridays, you may have some happy employees for a while, but you’ll likely run into trouble down the road if you haven’t planned for it. Here are four key areas that you need to think through.

1. Get your motivation straight

Why do you want to reduce hours? Are you hoping for better productivity? Do you want your employees to be happier? Are you trying to reduce congestion in the office or lower operating expenses?

Your motivation will lead to the metric that will help you gauge the success of your experiment. 

Treehouse CFO Michael Watson said their motivation started from the thought, “We want to take care of our people.” In that case, strict measures of productivity may not be the right tool to use. 

If you are serious, you may want to engage a consultant or local university to help you evaluate the effectiveness of the experiment. 

2. Be employee-led

As with most cultural decisions, mandating things from the top down isn’t a good idea. You should talk with employees and get their insights and feedback. Do they want a four-day week, or would they rather continue to work five, but with fewer hours? How would it improve their lives? What other benefits might be there?

Employees should also think about solutions for how to overcome challenges. At Lassee Rheingans’s consulting company, they don’t allow mobile phones in the office and block social networks for their 5 hour workday in order to increase productivity. If you still need to meet customer’s needs throughout the week, can you work in teams to make sure all days are covered? Does it make more sense to use a seasonal approach like Basecamp?

Andrew Barnes of Perpetual Guardian says, “”The right attitude is a requirement to make it work–everyone has to be committed and take it seriously for us to create a viable long-term model for our business.” Employees must be involved in how it is implemented and monitored.

3. Four days on

Much like remote work, a four-day week is not something you can just try tomorrow. It should be the next logical step on a path your company is already on. If you have already built a culture around employee wellbeing, automation, digital workplaces, and productivity, then transitioning to a four-day week, or reducing hours makes sense. But if you haven’t done the work to prepare your team, then it’s not likely to succeed. 

A four day workweek is not something you can just start. Think about the culture you have now. 

  • How efficient are you? 
  • How well do you use digital tools? 
  • How often are decisions delayed because you are waiting on someone? 
  • Where is the most friction in your daily interactions?
  • When’s the last time you stopped having a meeting because you didn’t need it?
  • How much busy work does your team do that could be automated?
  • How much time is wasted on social media tools?
  • Do you naturally praise people who get more done in less time? Or do you reward the workaholics?

Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson said two reasons that his company was able to make the move to four days was that they had already eliminated internal email and managers. They also had a strong culture about unnecessary meetings. 

4. Think about the three days off

One very interesting aspect of Microsoft Japan’s approach was how they encouraged people to use their extra time off. They offered money to employees to do various things like:

  • Take a family trip
  • Learn a new skill
  • Volunteer somewhere
  • Visit another office and learn from it

You don’t want to put unnecessary parameters around how people can spend their free time, but you can encourage them to use it in a way that encourages rest, creativity, and service. 

The goal is not for your employees to have time to take up a second job, but to enjoy life, take care of children or family members, and be better humans. If you care for the whole person, you want to make sure that the three days off are spent on things that revitalize the mind and body. 


Take the next step

Ryan Carson gives this challenge, “Are you going to talk about how it would be nice to work less? Or are you actually going to do something about it?” The four day workweek may be the next loonshot–an idea everyone is crazy until it isn’t (ht Safi Bahcall). 

Many thinkers expect the US to be the last country to adopt these kinds of changes because of an unhealthy obsession with work and getting more money for luxury rather than leisure. 

But as a leader, you have the power to make a change. Why not start with experimenting with a lighter workweek? 

Thinking about a four-day workweek should just be the start. Once you realize that you could slash off a day, you start to wonder if it’s not a better idea to decouple the idea of work and time altogether. Or you realize that the whole concept of a workweek is something you can rebuild from the ground up.

Bill Jensen of Simpler Work says, “The real shift isn’t four days or five. That’s using yesterday’s framework to build the future of work. The real shifts are in leadership mindsets and in building completely new metrics for, and new ways of thinking about, productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. In an AI era, where so many tasks will be automated and run by algorithms, productivity must be completely reimagined to include how teammates leverage their humanness in completely new ways.”

It’s easy to look at history and find that the workweek has always been reducing, and it’s almost always been a good thing. You can either be a pioneer in leading the way for better worker rights and wellbeing, or stick to the old ways. We think it’s time for a little WorkMinus.

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