A calendar showing working days marked in red. A red ‘X’ is marked on the fifth day of each week, symbolising shorter work weeks.
Image: © Piscine26/Stock.adobe.com

How effective are shorter work weeks?

26 Jan 2022

Many companies in Ireland and abroad are trialling four-day work weeks, but how effective are they?

The working world is in a massive state of flux at the moment. The future of work has been a topic of conversation for several years, but nothing has brought it to the forefront quite like the pandemic.

Covid-19 has brought about mass remote working, greater flexibility, extra recharge weeks for staff and a growing trend of shorter working weeks.

Four-day week trials have gradually been rolling out around the world across a variety of companies. In Japan, Microsoft trialled a four-day working week for the month of August in 2019, giving employees five Fridays off in a row without any changes to salary.

Consumer goods company Unilever committed to a year-long trial of a four-day week for its New Zealand employees throughout 2021. And on an even larger scale, an Icelandic research project between 2015 and 2019 led to many employees working shorter hours, without any interruption to their salaries.

In Ireland, there has been a strong push to introduce shorter working weeks from campaign group Four Day Week Ireland. In October last year, the group revealed that 17 companies had signed up to its pilot programme, due to commence this year.

Participating companies include Dublin-based recruitment services company Yala, bioceuticals manufacturing company Soothing Solutions and IT service provider Typetec.

Pandemic pressures inspire change

Talk of shorter working weeks has been around for a while but, just like remote working, the Covid-19 pandemic has given employers an opportunity to be more open-minded about changing the traditional ways of working.

E-commerce fraud protection company Signifyd, which has an R&D base in Belfast, made the decision to move to a four-day work week to promote employee wellness.

“Burnout, already a huge issue in the tech community, was exacerbated by many factors during Covid,” said Emily Mikailli, SVP for people operations at the California-headquartered company.

“We take our employees’ wellbeing incredibly seriously and so we used this opportunity to re-examine the way we work and how we can help people lead balanced, meaningful lives while simultaneously doing the best work of their careers.

‘Employees found ways to work smarter and focus on outcomes rather than activities’

“Our R&D organisation took the first leap by piloting summer Fridays, which gave us the experience we needed to feel confident that we could work less, but better, and still achieve incredible business results. Employees found ways to work smarter and focus on outcomes rather than activities.”

Unlike compressed working weeks, where employers would put their usual 40-hour week into four days instead of five, Signifyd aimed to have its employees reduce their hours of work.

“A big area of opportunity for us was reducing meetings – either making them less frequent, having fewer people in attendance, shortening them or eliminating them altogether in favour of asynchronous communication methods,” said Mikailli. “However, as a customer-obsessed, growing company in a highly competitive industry, we simply knew a one-size-fits-all approach was unrealistic.”

To this end, some functions within the business now work to a different schedule than others on a rotational basis.

Taking the stress from people

Over in the US, Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton also introduced a four-day week for her team in August 2020.

Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com, Hamilton said she proposed the change in order to “take the stress off of people” who, for example, wanted to be able to run errands at a convenient time.

“Everyone said yes. Nobody was like, ‘No, I want that extra day.’ So we tried it and it was great,” she said. “We decided to make it one day instead of a floating day. Fridays are the day off so you can have an extended weekend, and the trial just became the norm.”

Hamilton felt that choosing a set day where everyone was off meant it was less likely that employees would try to put five days of work into four days or leave tasks unfinished for others to pick up.

“If everybody’s off, then everybody will not answer their emails. Everybody will be cool. Everybody will not be drawn back to work and or guilted back to work. And it’ll be a systemic thing rather than hoping that these very high-performing, ambitious people will take that time for themselves.”

Hamilton said her team has found the flexibility extremely helpful to “survive emotionally through this pandemic”.

“They bring it up on their own. They say it in different ways. I haven’t seen any lack of productivity. That’s been awesome,” she added. “I think people feel really comfortable saying, ‘I’m just going to take some time for myself.’”

Bringing in a four-day week wasn’t without it’s challenges, though. For Hamilton, she found herself not adhering to the rule in the beginning and instead had a ‘I’ll mind the shop’ mentality so that others would take the day off.

“I was just sort of like, ‘I’ll be here. Everybody, take off and that will make life better.’ And then I realised that I wasn’t setting a good example and so I stopped doing that,” she said.

“Now you can’t find anybody on Friday. But at the very beginning, that probably took three to six months for everybody to get used to.”

What should leaders do?

Signifyd’s Mikailli said it’s tempting for companies to look for reasons why a shorter work week won’t be possible, but it’s important to put people at the centre of the conversation.

“We all have fallen into the ‘more is more’ trap despite the data showing otherwise,” she said. “But we are truly fortunate to have one of the most people-centric, forward-thinking leadership teams and they were unanimously in favour of finding a way to make this work.”

‘You don’t have to worry about losing productivity because by Friday, most people are burnt out to begin with’

Hamilton added that, provided a company can afford to do it, she can’t think of a reason not to.

“At the very least, you maintain productivity. You don’t have to worry about losing productivity because by Friday, most people are burnt out to begin with and they’re just sort of on autopilot.”

She also said leaders have the option of exploring different ways a shorter work week might work for them, whether it’s all on one day arrangement like Backstage Capital, or whether it’s different days for different teams, or there are different schedules.

“As leaders, we have to pivot, we have to adapt. We have to take into consideration people who are not just ourselves and how we would react to something. All those things I think are not just good for people’s soul, but a good for the bottom line,” she said.

“Any time you can hold on to your star players without spending more necessarily, I think is a good thing.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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