Is a Four-Day Workweek Really Possible?

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Nov 3, 2021

There is certainly a split camp whenever you speak to people about the four-day workweek. I’ve seen that employers, especially small businesses, are more reluctant to embrace such a shift. I have also seen driven salespeople say that they would struggle to hit targets if they were to lose a workday from the week. But there are also many who would relish the opportunity to gain an extra day of leisure time.

The four-day workweek became a hot topic recently, based on the positive findings of an Iceland research report that had monitored the productivity and general wellbeing of thousands of Icelandic workers who had all moved to a four-day workweek. 

The caveat is that the weekly hours these employees predominantly worked went from 40 down to 36, which in essence means these workers shaved off half a day in actual working time. That is, they managed to cram more into a shorter period. 

The results from the study were conclusive: The labor force was just as productive, if not more so, and the general wellbeing of the workers increased. People used the extra time being used for leisure, relaxation, exercise, and education. 

So it seems clear the U.S. should also move to a four-day workweek, right? 

Well, no. It’s not quite that simple. 

Examples of Roles Where It Would Not Work 

Hotels. Looking at roles like cooks and cleaners who work within the hotel sector, these jobs require daily attention, since customers do not stop eating and sleeping in beds. If a cleaner is tasked with looking after an entire floor of a hotel— to clean rooms and make beds — no matter how fast and efficiently they clean, the exact same thing is going to need to happen the next day and all the days after. 

So, it’s impossible for a worker in that particular role to squeeze five days’ worth of effort and value into a four-day week, and hotels would still need someone to clean rooms on the fifth day, which makes this financially unviable. Hotels budget to pay workers based on required service level, such as making beds and cleaning rooms daily, so moving towards a four-day working week that pays people the same simply would not work financially and would be unsustainable. 

Restaurants. Again, a similar situation to the above since serving paying customers does not stop and is something that is required every day the business is open. It’s not “project-based,” with limited quantity over a limited amount of time. It’s an unknown, almost unlimited quantity daily. Employers would struggle to restructure their staff, from servers to cooks, in a way that maintained profitability while also having enough staff on hand to serve customers daily. 

With the hotel market being worth $198.34 billion in the U.S. and the chain restaurant market being worth $138 billion, between them you have well over a quarter of a trillion-dollar market that would be brought to its knees if via a four-day workweek. 

So let’s take a look at jobs that could actually support a four-day working week. These are typically roles with quantifiable outputs, which means that if the employee achieves the output faster and more efficiently (to a level of profitable satisfaction for the employer), then that employee could easily reduce their working week. It can be concluded that the four-day workweek is not feasible for the hourly worker (unless they can cram five days of working hours into four days). Otherwise these workers will miss out on much-needed pay. 

Examples of Roles Where It Could Work

Sales. It will go against almost every fiber of a good salesperson’s being (especially those who hit their targets) to take additional time off. However, if there is a perfect job role for a four-day workweek, it’s this one. 

If a salesperson is crushing their quota, then it may be nice to have a little more downtime with an additional day off. This can help to prevent things like burnout, which is typical of a high-flying salesperson. 

However, it’s important to note that when a major publication interviewed salespeople about a four-day workweek, respondents expressed that they didn’t want the extra day off or to risk losing the chance of selling more, making more money for both the company and their commissions. So while a compressed workweek is technically possible, It’s likely that driven salespeople would probably not follow a four-day workweek. Instead,  they’d work all the hours needed to make as many sales as possible to earn the highest commission. 

Web developers. Developing code and building websites, technology, and databases also has a strong level of quantifiable work that can be achieved in a shorter time period successfully, dependent on ability, effort, and accuracy. 

If a developer can do the job in a shorter period of time since they have superior abilities, then undoubtedly this job and industry could happily support a four-day workweek. I would even argue that a good amount of the people working in this role and sector would openly embrace a four-day working week. 

Looking Toward the Future

Ultimately, we cannot move all job sectors to a four-day workweek. Instead, employers should use the four-day workweek as an incentive and benefit for employees who are in a position that allows for it and who truly achieve success working for their company.

What we can conclude from all this is that some roles are compensated based on time spent working (often hourly roles), while other roles are based on output. It’s the latter that are typically more eligible for a four-day workweek. 

Looking towards the future, it’s worth examining whether it would be possible to convert hourly roles into output-based jobs. This depends on the economics for employers, but it;s probably that more jobs could move to this type of work — all of which would make a four-day work week more accessible to the entire labor force. 

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