A close-up of a calendar with four blue push pins on it, symbolising a four-day week.
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How to make a four-day week work for your organisation

15 Jun 2022

While four-day week pilot programmes are underway around the world, Asana’s Simon O’Kane warns that these must be coupled with a new approach to how we actually conduct our work.

Working one day less every week with no reduction in pay. Sounds like the stuff of fantasy, right? For a long time it was, but a widespread four-day working week is now a genuinely realistic prospect.

This summer, more than 3,000 workers at 60 companies across the UK will join an international six-month pilot study to examine the effects of a four-day working week.

Arguably the two most important signals to look out for here will be whether the shift produces the same output of work, while also helping to alleviate the significant wellbeing challenges we currently face in the workplace. If successful, we could see the four-day week quickly rolled out by businesses.

This would represent the most significant shake-up in the working week for almost 100 years since Henry Ford kick-started the move down from six days to create the weekends we adore.

Regardless of the final outcome, the trial is an undeniable leap in the right direction and offers an opportunity to test new avenues, acknowledging the way we’re currently working isn’t ‘working’. Leaders must be prepared to restructure traditions as we continue to reimagine the way people work today and in the future.

How to reimagine the working week

To be successful, this pilot needs to be paired with a new approach to how work is done in those four days to ultimately get the best out of people and keep productivity levels high.

One of the key concerns surrounding the four-day work week is whether workers will be expected to produce five days of work in four days. Clearly, it’s not going to work if that is the case and the hope is that workers will be more productive in the four days because they’re being given more time to rest every week – a belief validated by insights from previous trials.

However, the risk of overworking in the four days remains a big issue – one that could exacerbate burnout rather than reduce it as hoped. We can’t simply retain the processes that aren’t working in five days in the four-day future. Instead, what’s needed are clear boundaries around work to restore and protect work-life balance.

Reducing ‘work about work’

Asana’s global analysis on how work is being done and how workers feel about it found that 37pc of workers surveyed lack a clear work start or finish time, which makes it difficult for them to switch off.

Furthermore, almost 40pc of respondents reported checking emails outside of working hours more often than before the widespread onset of hybrid working. It is up to businesses to find a way to stop their people from overworking, no matter where they’re working from.

Limiting overworking must begin with an understanding of where your people’s time is going. Our data found workers spend 58pc of their time on ‘work about work’ – the collective name for tasks such as communicating about work, switching between apps and chasing status updates.

These mundane time-saps offer the least value when compared to strategic or skilled work, yet they continue to absorb the majority of workers’ time.

As highlighted by these findings, employees are spending 27pc more time this year on skilled work – but nearly 36pc less time on strategy. All of which comes at the expense of the more meaningful tasks individuals were both hired and want to do.

Why technology holds the key

The key way to tackle ‘work about work’ is by prioritising clarity in your processes. If teams have up-to-date information on who is doing what and by when already at their fingertips, it will drastically reduce the need for unnecessary communications that eat into so much valuable time.

Workers are feeling engulfed by the hybrid technology stack that is now in place and the associated data overload. Indeed, more than half of workers feel they have to respond to notifications immediately and more than a third feel overwhelmed by persistent pings.

The most frustrating thing about the statistics is that they are preventable. Allowing ‘work about work’ to dominate your people’s time is a choice between archaic processes versus round-the-clock clarity. Leaders must recognise the opportunity in front of them and choose to deploy technology that empowers teams rather than limits them.

Reasons to be optimistic

The four-day working week is more than one less day of work a week, it’s an opportunity to hit refresh on outdated work practices.

To realise the potential of the four-day week, business leaders must ensure that their teams are equipped to do more of the work that matters and less of the work that eats into their working hours.

Tech’s role is essential in empowering a sustainable hybrid working world, but less tech is key. Employers should be prioritising a single source of truth with enhanced integrations because consequently, the workplace tech stack you deploy will determine how well your workers cope in this new work landscape.

It is important to acknowledge that there is no silver bullet that exists for the widespread workplace challenges we are currently facing. The four-day working week trial is a great start, but it should not be the end of our strategy.

What we’re seeing in the workforce – widespread productivity loss and burnout, to name a couple of the bigger issues – can’t be fixed by one less working day or one extra day of rest every week. It is, however, the perfect place to start and I feel optimistic that we will reap the benefits in the not-too-distant future.

By Simon O’Kane

Simon O’Kane is the head of international at Asana, a work management platform to help teams organise and track their work.

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