• Today, the traditional 9-5, five-day workweek looks more old-fashioned than a Ford Model T.
  • Workers are rightly calling for more flexibility, better work-life balance, and more choice in deciding when, where, and how to best do their jobs.
  • All signs point to an evolving definition of work, and the need for companies to listen, learn and adapt to what employees want. A four day work week is the latest positive change in this domain.

“The five-day week is not the ultimate, and neither is the eight-hour day.” - Henry Ford, 1926.

Henry Ford was ahead of his time in so many ways, including his views on working hours almost a century ago. As a glass-half-full optimist, I’m a big believer that history can teach us a thing or two about how to shape what’s ahead.

Four day work week: a look into the future of work

The last two years have accelerated new ways of working and collaborating. Before the pandemic, we couldn’t seem to get off the starting block despite increased investment in tech and a rising movement among workers. And since, many of us have enjoyed the camaraderie of connection from the comfort of home, while some of us, including myself, have struggled with the interim: hybrid working. But I’m convinced that the hard to define “hybrid” is what will finally pave the path to permanent flexibility. Today, the traditional 9-5, five-day workweek looks more old-fashioned than a Ford Model T.

Workers are rightly calling for more flexibility, better work-life balance, and more choice in deciding when, where and how to best do their jobs. They want a permanent move toward more diverse, more flexible work models and we’ve just kicked off the biggest pilot ever over the last few years, the results of which and future phases will likely run and be analyzed and debated for even longer. Still, what’s already clear, is that all signs point to an evolving definition of work, and the need for companies to listen, learn and adapt to what employees want.

No more sitting on the fence

The four day work week is a hot topic, with newsfeeds full of companies and governments initiating various trials. Belgium’s right to work a five-day week in four days with no loss of salary. Iceland’s “overwhelming success” trialing a shortened work week with “dramatically increased” employee wellbeing. And the UK business-driven four-days’ work, five-days’ pay, or the seven-day “just get your work done” model are just some more examples. The "working week, working hours"-debate is not new and it’s not done, that’s for sure.

Empowering people to think differently about how, when, and where they work has a clear impact on businesses, too. Working flexibly, not working less gives employees greater focus during working hours. Microsoft Japan saw a 40% jump in productivity gains and a rise in employee happiness from their four day work week trial. Of course, not every experiment with flexible work has its intended consequences. France introduced a 35-hour workweek, hoping to generate more employment, but some would say the result was more vacation.

Still, no matter how you slice it organizations making a conscious shift to attract and retain talent by offering choice and flexibility will be more successful when it comes to what really matters to employees beyond the paycheck.

ManpowerGroup Employment Outlook Survey
ManpowerGroup Employment Outlook Survey
Image: Manpower Group

Fulfilling worker's needs and wants

Workers care deeply about working for companies that share their values and beliefs - 64% want to know their work contributes positively to society. And this is especially true for women for whom greater flexibility, meaningful work and shared values are key motivation drivers.

Beliefs around sustainability, social justice, fairness, and equity also determine workers’ employment choices. Offering flexible work – allowing people choices about what time they start and end, what they work on, with whom, and how often - is redefining how companies in virtually every industry compete for talent. And in a world where 75% of employers report difficulties in hiring – an all-time high – flexibility matters.

The new competitive advantage

Realistically, four day work weeks are better for some than others, just as remote work doesn’t work for all either. While many of us have been debating and deciding which days to work from home over the last two years, 60% of the workforce have still been showing up at work, on-site, in situ - from the factory floor or the R&D lab, to the hospital or the Amazon delivery van.

So, to avoid polarizing an already polarized workforce further, we need flexible opportunities - for all. We know from our What Workers Want research (5,000 workers across 5 countries, all levels, all industries) that some of the simplest things matter most – 45% of workers list the ability to control their schedule (when they start and when they finish) top of their flexibility wish-list, trumping more vacation time (36%) and even the choice of where to work (35%).

Flexibility and choice matter

Choice matters—and let’s not forget that individuals don’t make choices in a vacuum. For most people, work is more often than not a team sport, part of a bigger squad requiring to give, take and compromise for the greater good of the rest of the team, the wider organization and their personal situation. All of which points to the need for a workplace culture where leaders focus on what people are delivering, not where, when or how they do it.

Today, positive change like a four day work week, means a future of work that is more flexible, more oriented towards wellbeing and more purpose-driven than we could ever have imagined.