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The considerable challenges of a four-day work week

Updated 17th July 2022

The idea of a 4-day work week is gradually gaining traction in professional spheres. It’s been a fringe idea for quite some time. But businesses in a post-pandemic world are now revisiting the idea of what should define the typical employee experience going forward.

We’ve talked at length about the benefits, but now it’s time to look at the challenges employers may face. What are the disadvantages of a 4-day work week, and how can they be overcome?

At Weekly10, we’re big believers in the potenital of a 4-day work week...

With people asking whether 5-day work weeks are outdated, and recent research showing that a 4-day work week can increase productivity by 25-50%, it’s no wonder more and more businesses are considering it. Its success has even affected work culture across whole countries. Take the 4-day work week trial that 1% of Iceland’s working population took part in over several years for example. Its landmark findings resulted in 86% of Iceland’s working population being able to gain reduced hours or increased flexibility in their employment contracts.

And, because it’s a win for employee engagement and wellbeing, we’re all for it too. But we’ve discussed the benefits of a 4-day work week at length already, across several different articles. 

...But it can still cause potential issues

Admittedly, we’re fans of a 4-day work week. But it’s important to take a balanced view and understand all sides. Your business may stand to benefit from cutting back employee hours. But be aware, that doesn’t just mean you can flip a switch and implement it with no complications.

For starters, although your employees might work less days a week, you probably don’t want to cut back on opening hours. That's doubly true if you’re a customer-facing business. So you need to consider the possible disadvantages of a 4-day work week. Then you need to plan out what you can reasonably do to mitigate them.

Potential disadvantages of a 4-day work week

This isn’t "Why a 4-day work week is bad," by any means. It's more a view into the practical difficulties of implementing a 4-day week schedule. But, along with the disadvantages of a 4-day work week, we’ll also be giving you some practical solutions.

Balancing shift patterns

One of the most common disadvantages of a 4-day work week is that, if you’re a Monday to Friday business, staying that way gets a bit more complicated. Depending on your workplace, certain days of the week might be more hotly contested than others. Maybe everyone wants Monday or Friday off, or everyone decides they want a mid-week break. Having too many or too few people in the office can bring things grinding to a halt.

Solutions: Obviously, the simplest thing would be to make some new hires to compensate for the extra time off. But that’s not always feasible. First, talk to everyone about their preferred days off to see if there’s even a conflict in the first place. If someone needs to be elsewhere on a day you need them to work, consider giving them a half-day, or letting them work from home.

Less hours means less time to get things done

One option for a 4-day work week is to reduce the number of hours that employees work. Evidence does suggest this can increase productivity. But it might not necessarily seem that way to your staff. Asking people to meet the same targets in less time is a pretty tough sell.

Solutions: It’s all about helping your employees to make the transition. We’d recommend using goal-setting frameworks such as SMART or OKR to help them break tasks into more manageable objectives. Another option would be to compress hours instead of reducing them. So, instead of working five eight-hour days, your staff instead work four ten-hour days, although that isn’t a perfect solution.

But compressed hours can turn up the pressure

The disadvantages of a 4-day work week vary depending on whether hours are compressed or reduced. The problem with 10-hour work days is that people can only focus and work effectively for so long before diminishing returns set in. Plus, an overclocked schedule is a fast-track to burnout.

Solutions: If you want to compress hours, your best bet is not to introduce it across the board. Let employees make the decision to work five days a week normally, or four longer days each week. That way, everyone can choose the option that suits them. Or you could simply reduce hours instead. However...

Compensating employees for reduced hours can be expensive

This is perhaps the most obvious disadvantage of a 4-day work week to any shrewd employer. Giving staff the same pay for less hours can feel like you’re taking the scenic route to giving them a pay rise. If you’re skeptical that cutting hours could increase productivity, this probably feels like a ridiculous gamble to lock yourself into.

Solutions: In this case, just one solution. Test it out before you go all in. Choose your most reliable managers for a trial run. Then have their teams test out a reduced-hours 4-day week before you roll it out company-wide.

What about the forgotten employees?

Regardless of how beneficial it actually is, it’s still possible to get too excited about the 4-day work week.

As with the recent hype around working from home, it’s easy to forget that not everyone can benefit equally from it. Just as retail, hospitality, and other service industry workers can’t all just work from home, there are employees who either can’t have a 4-day week, or are simply being passed over.

Of all the disadvantages of a 4-day work week, this is the most significant. There are some professions it's just not feasible for. That includes nurses and other frontline NHS staff who are in too short supply. But it also means teachers on the same five-day schedule as their students.

We often talk about 4-day work week challenges as they apply to office workers. But teachers, nurses and other forgotten employees need the wellbeing benefits of a 4-day week as much as anyone else.

However, the only way they’ll get it is if those sectors get much-needed infusions of fresh talent. Not to mention the money to pay for it. Until our teachers, nurses, and other essential contributors can also take 4-day work weeks, it will never be universal the way people want it to be.

A habit-forming employee check-in that helps create and sustain cultural change in any workplace? Check Weekly10 out….