The four-day work week trend spins back into the mainstream

By Johan Botes, Partner and Head of the Employment & Compensation Practice, Baker McKenzie Johannesburg

The four-day work week is nothing new. Reading about its anticipated return is akin to getting a letter from an old friend who disappointed you long ago and then disappeared, but for whom you still have fond feelings. Like yo-yos and hula hoops, the four-day work week has excited generations, with the notion fading over time and becoming trendy again once those who were infatuated with the idea had long forgotten about the frustration of replicating moves made to look so simple by a select few.

Two global oil companies were first documented cases of companies adopting the four-day work week, back in 1940. Their drivers worked a schedule that saw them working 40 hours in four days (the 4/40 system).  Other constructs of the four-day work week entail a reduction in working hours, not just days, for instance 4/36, with workers reducing their weekly hours commensurately with the reduction in days worked. Reports indicate that 1969 saw a rapid increase in the number of companies willing to test a four-day work week, with notable uptake of the proposal in the United States during the 1970s. In a paper published in the Connecticut Law Journal, Robert C Bird noted the decline of articles written about the four-day work week after a spike in the 70s and early 80s. Research about the reduced work week is available from these periods – academics and students at this time were keen to observe the impact of such steps taken by businesses. The results of these studies do not bode well for refreshed interest in this phenomenon.

Many four-day work week studies show initial increases in work satisfaction, employee happiness and engagement, and even increases in productivity. In 1974, Martin J. Gannon ascribed the enthusiastic response to the “Hawthorne Effect” (which holds that persons subjected to the study of a new system report advantageous effects on account of the system being new and them being studied to measure it). Research shows that the initial enthusiasm and positive effects of a reduced work week waned over time. Ivancevich & Lyon (1977) noted that employees working on a 4/40 week reported increased satisfaction in respect of job security, autonomy and remuneration when compared to a comparator group, plus reduced anxiety and increased productivity. These results – measured after 13 months from the commencement of the programme – stand in stark contrast to the employee experiences recorded at 25 months. All areas measured declined by the second survey –  the only aspect that remained positive after two years was the employees’ sense of personal worth.

However, a current trial conducted by 4 Day Week Global, the think tank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week UK Campaign and researchers at Boston College and Cambridge and Oxford universities continues to report success. In late November it was announced that 100 UK companies employing around 2 600 employees would permanently implement four-day weeks, with employees receiving the same salaries. This is considered to be a positive step for the current 4-day week campaign.

The 100-80-100 four-day system that has recently been proposed in South Africa will see participating employees get 100% of their remuneration for working 80% of their current hours, with the last 100 being for their commitment. A reduced week is not to be confused with a compressed work week. The latter sees staff working the same hours during a shorter period, e.g. 45 hours in four days instead of five or six.  In South Africa, employees earning less than ZAR 224 083 per year enjoy additional protection in respect of working hours and rest periods. This includes maximum duty hours per day and week, and minimum rest between shifts. Employees in this category could agree to compressed work weeks by concluding a collective agreement to this effect, albeit through a trade union, with their employer. Compressed work weeks are more frequent in industries where staff prefer more consecutive work-free periods but are willing to work longer hours in the workday, for instance the hospitality and security sectors. Employers are often willing to enter into such arrangements, as such a collective agreement could allow the business to spread overtime worked over a longer period. Yet, despite this mechanism existing in our law for decades, it is not common in many workplaces. Employees do not seem keen to work the same hours in a shorter period – the value lies in working less hours over a shorter period, it would seem.

When considering a shorter work week, many authors enthuse about the positive impact this may have on reducing gender inequality. Allowing working mothers, for instance, to select their working week means they could choose a timeframe that suits their needs. Katie Windler (author of Flexible Scheduling and the Gender Pay Gap, 2004) indicated that this system emphasised the stress line rather than eradicated it. She noted that working mothers tended to use flexibility in scheduling their work to coordinate childrearing whereas men use flexible scheduling to work when they are most productive. Whilst flexible scheduling may seem to offer some reprieve to overworked and exhausted mothers, the system would allow the men who do not share equally in the childrearing responsibilities to gain further advantage in that they can optimise their work performance even further.

Jennifer Glass noted in her 2004 book that reduced employee face time inhibits the development of “…lucrative managerial and professional careers.” This could particularly be a risk where some parts of the organisation adopt a reduced work week but others don’t. The  2013 study by Stanford University showed that employees who worked from home were 50% less likely to be promoted than their counterparts who worked in the office, notwithstanding the higher productivity and reported employee engagement and satisfaction of those who worked from home. Where some employees thus work four days a week and others five, will those getting four days of exposure to the business, managers and mentors per week enjoy the same growth and advancement as their five-day colleagues?

These and other tough questions demand answers, which are unlikely to feature strongly during the clamour for a new system. What is certainly clear is that the working world is ready for greater flexibility in the way, manner and frequency in which we expect employees to show up to a location and perform work tasks. Businesses who think deeply and widely about the impact of such flexibility may be able to sustain gains for longer than counterparts who jump from one fad to the next. We are praying for the success of a reduced work week, but we should also be meaningfully applying our minds to finding lasting solutions to our workplace problems and inequalities. As Martin Gannon said in Four Days, Forty Hours: A Case Study (1974) “Moving to a four-day work week may alleviate existing symptoms of workplace problems, but not the underlying causes.”

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio (