It’s Not the Four-Hour Workweek, But It’s Getting Closer

Over 14 years ago, Tim Ferriss came out with a breakthrough book titled The 4-Hour Workweek. The book was on the bestseller list for four years.

And why not? Who wouldn’t find a four-hour workweek appealing?

While I have not heard of anyone successfully living a four-hour workweek, including Ferris, trials of a four-day week in Iceland were an “overwhelming success” and led to many workers moving to shorter hours, researchers have said.

The trials, in which workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours, took place between 2015 and 2019.

The trials run by Reykjavík City Council and the national government eventually included more than 2,500 workers, which amounts to about 1% of Iceland’s working population.

A range of workplaces took part, including preschools, offices, social service providers, and hospitals.

Productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces, researchers said.

Many of the workers moved from a 40 hour week to a 35 or 36 hour week.

The trials led unions to renegotiate working patterns, and now 86% of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or will gain the right to.

Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved. They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies, and complete household chores.

This seems like a great solution for the workers, but what about for the employers?

Did services have to be cut to accommodate the shorter working week?.

For example, was pre-school cut from five days to four days? If not, did the government have to hire additional people to staff that fifth day? If that is the case, then moving to a four-hour workweek would seem to increase the overall costs of such a program.

Iceland is not the only country trying such work experiments.

Spain is piloting a four-day working week for companies in part due to the challenges of coronavirus.

And consumer goods giant Unilever is giving staff in New Zealand a chance to cut their hours by 20% without hurting their pay in a trial.

My sense is that these kinds of work changes that result in lower hours with the same pay may work in certain industries and jobs, but may not be as well suited for other types of work, such as a school or a hospital.

I’ve written before about the artificial nature of the 40-hour workweek (here and here), and if a business can get the same amount of work done and provide the same level of service with a shorter workweek, then it makes sense to move to a shorter workweek.

Many times, the productivity gains from using technology are a key part of such work changes.

After all, isn’t that what washing machines and dishwashers and microwave ovens were supposed to do? Free up our time spent doing mundane chores at home so that we have more time to spend with our families and enjoying life?

If technology can do the same thing at work, then we should take advantage of it.

I’ll admit I have not read all of the details of the Icelandic experiment, but if the researchers are calling it a success, then that has to count for something (although I know they could be biased in wanting to say the program is successful if they were involved in designing it).

But I seem to be reading about more of these types of work experiments, so it seems as if the trend is for companies to look for ways to reduce the workweek.

And if all else remains at least equal (pay and productivity), then I say cut that workweek…


51 thoughts on “It’s Not the Four-Hour Workweek, But It’s Getting Closer

  1. Just my luck, we get a four-day workweek after I’ve retired. I once worked a 3-day-on, 3-day-off schedule, and loved it, even though it technically resulted in working an average of 42 hours per week, since the workday was 12 hours.

    But if we did move to a four-day workweek, I’m sure there’d be plenty of employees volunteering for overtime.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Often they depend upon the overtime, due to poor money management. When I worked in the postal service we got a lot of OT. But occasionally, management would cut back on OT hours. And that would put some of my coworkers, who had expensive house and car payments, in a precarious financial situation.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I once had a coworker complain to me that because he wasn’t getting any overtime, he would have to ask his relatives for a loan, so that he could keep his kids in private school. I felt stunned, hearing that. So yeah, maybe he would have benefited from a financial literacy course.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s such an interesting study! Whenever anyone discussed a possible 4 day work week I never thought of a study being conducted to measure productivity but I think that’s an amazing idea.. I work 7hrs a day but I bet if you told me I’d get paid the same if I could get it done in 5 hrs a day I’d be even more productive!

    When I joined my friend in Paris for a summer study program, I found the level of priority the French placed on work very interesting.. In that family always came first… At 4 on a weekday the parks would be packed without a spot to picnic bc all the families were out! I thought it was lovely and amazing! That’s the type of balance I’d want!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. My problem was that forty hours was not enough time to do everything I needed to get done. As you say, if people can get the job done in less time and the work is of equal or better quality, why not?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think with teachers it would be hard to have a set number of hours each week, sicnethe workload may vary quite a bit each week. and many weeks would require more than 40 hours…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This sounds great to me, but most executives and business owners are all about the bottom line, not necessarily overly concerned about employee happiness. You would not be able to sell the benefits of such a change if it cost even a nickel in profits. Just saying…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think many/most teachers would enjoy a shorter work week. Most of the teachers I know work far more than 40 hours and don’t receive any more pay. Back in the 80s, technology was hailed as a great work saver, giving us all much more free time. I think it has just created a lot more work. If it can be done with technology, it must be done, is how it seems to me. It doesn’t matter whether it’s valuable or not.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree that many teachers put in alot mroe than 40 hours during the week, and I also think it varies quite a bit from week to week. And I also agree that technology hasn’t always been the great savior it was hyped to be…

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I am all for this. as the teachers above said, we work much more than 40 hours and would be happy to work less hours and be happier. if children were off on the 5th day, so would the parents, so that could work, giving them long weekends together or for older students, a day to finish up homework/projects/whatever. in advertising we went to Fridays off in the summers, unless there was a client meeting or other immoveable happening on that day, but it almost always worked out. I know myself, when I work less, I am truly more productive, patient, and happy. businesses have learned to change their models during covid to explore possibilities for flextime, hybrid, days off, etc. and hopefully this will change things in this direction. I’m in!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I don’t think many people outside of teaching realize how many hours a teacher puts in. If there was a way to streamline those hours, I think there would not be as much teacher burnout, and perhaps mroe people would be attracted to the profession.

      And yes, the pandemic has certainly made companies realize that there may be a variety of ways for its employees to work, while still being productive…

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Working at a business where ‘being present at work’ is one of the main deliverables expected from employees, this sort of benefit just isn’t going to work. The administrators could pull it off, but that would be so unfair that it might (should) lead to revolt. Maybe in industries where hours can’t be cut, a pay raise could compensate employees for extra hours worked. It’s a tricky tightrope being a financial director and a raging liberal at the same time. I can’t possibly do the things I think are necessary for the general good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. being present makes sense to me, as long as the employees are being productive during that time. If there is some downtime, then I would have to wonder why the employees have to be there for all those hours. I’m look you in that I understand the importance of operating profitably, bt hopefully not at the expense of the well-being of the employees and the environment…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. We’re a library system with minimum staff levels required to keep the buildings open and the patrons ‘serviced.’ I guess keeping a building open is ‘productive’ work, although sometimes on a beautiful April Sunday when no one comes in, it’s hard to feel that way.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Interesting discussion! Many smaller school districts in Montana have been experimenting with four-day workweeks. The more rural setting seems well-suited for this practice. Personally, I never taught in a school using a shorter week.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. In the world of finance, Jim, corporates consider that they pay their staff sufficiently well for them to have technology at home and au pairs and nanny’s so they can be available to work more and be at the beck and call of clients at any time of the day or night, 24/7. They will tell you this in your interview.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. For most people, yes. I am a bit of an exception because I seem to be able to get things done way faster than my colleagues so I don’t have to work as long hours as they do. It has always been like that for me, even when I was an articled clerk. I am not being boastful, but it is a fact. I have also never subscribed to the stay to be seen thing. If I’m finished, I’m outta there. My whole life has never been work, I’ve always had my obsessions. It is writing and blogging now but I have gone through various things.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I am on a 30 hour week package but I usually work 40 hours a week. Most people work a lot more – into the evenings and over weekends. I only do that when I must because of deadlines. I did have too over the whole of Jan to Mar this year.

        Liked by 2 people

  10. I cannot believe how many employees who could afford to retire (obviously some cannot) do not do it. Some seem to be working out of habit or some type of fixation on numbers like age 65 or maximizing social security payouts, or maybe guilt. I went to too many 35 and 40 year service parties for people who waited and retired at 65, only to die a year or two later (or become incapacitated) and leave their savings to heirs to spend. These were not people who loved their jobs. Some employees seem to be waiting for someone to give them permission to work shorter hours.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Ferriss’ book aside, some people actually find worth in the work, even if it’s practising your craft or running your business. In that sense, I think we’ll never truly have a four-hour workweek. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. My lovely next door neighbours have been working from home for their big international company since the first lockdown. It is a mystery to me what they actually do on their computers and conference calls, but I’m sure office workers of all kinds get more work done in less time at home as they have no one to talk to! At the other extreme many jobs involve being there and waiting for something to happen, such as firefighters, no chance for them to condense their hours.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. let’s hope they don’t cut firefighters’ hours. and perhaps some people are getting mroe work done at home, but if they have kids around it could be more challenging than going into the office.

      Liked by 2 people

Comments are closed.