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Is a four-day week the future of work?

As Germany trials a four-day work week, we ask if the four-day week is the future...

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The four-day working week is a hot topic in the world of work right now. Previously a relatively uncommon working model, the four-day week has become more popular and, in some countries, has even become the standard.

Between 2015 and 2019, the largest ever 35/36 hour workweek pilot was conducted in Iceland without any calls for a commensurate cut in pay. The highly-publicised trial was heralded by researchers as an “overwhelming success” – it led to many local workers moved permanently to four-day, shorter working hours.

The results of the report suggested productivity either remained the same or improved in the participating workforces, sparking a new interest in other four-day week trails around the world, such as in Spain, New Zealand, and, most recently, Germany.

In February 2024, Germany commenced a six-month four-day work week trial, led by management consultancy Intraprenör in collaboration with NGO 4 Day Week Global. The trail is being held at 45 companies nationwide, where workloads can be condensed into four days.

Germany is currently facing a labour shortage and productivity imbalance. So, a four-day week is being considered as a potential solution.

The five-day working has been standard in the western world since the early 1900s, when union advocacy won a reduction of the six-day workweek. Are these early trials the first sign that the world is heading towards a four-day working week? Or are we simply watching the next in a series of fleeting flex-work trends?

What is a four-day week?

At first glance, the four-day week is a simple concept – four days of working followed by a three-day weekend. However, in reality, the model differs drastically between countries and companies.

In Iceland, workers were given a compressed work schedule, meaning they were paid the same amount for shorter hours. The trials were run by Reykjavik City Council and the national government, and involved 2,500 workers which is 1% of Iceland’s working population.

Most workers moved from a 40-hour week to a 35 or 36-hour week, and the success of the trial led unions to renegotiate working patterns nationally. In 2021, 86% of Iceland’s workforce had either moved to shorter hours for the same salary or would be gaining the right to do so.

This kind of compressed work schedule differs from models where employees work a normal 40-hour week over four days, also known as a ‘four-ten’ week. This model was adopted from the get-go by the UK baking firm BakedIn, which has now become part of Treat Kitchen. The company allowed staff to work 9.5-hour days from Monday to Thursday.

The firm cited an increase in employee motivation and a decrease in stress and potential burnout as the reasons for their decision. However, some have questioned whether extending the average workday beyond the standard eight hours will result in increased pressure on employees. The four-ten model also goes against the idea of ‘working smarter, not longer’ that usually motivates a compressed working schedule.

The wave of pandemic-enforced new working trends has encouraged the debate around the four-day week. Workers have seen how quickly things can change in the working world, and how well changes such as remote work and flex working hours have gone over the last 18 months. When it comes to switching to a four-day week, the trials in Iceland and Germany have merely accelerated the debate.

What are the real-world effects?

Workers who participated in the Iceland trial reported feeling less stressed and less at risk of succumbing to burnout. Having more time off means an increase in work-life balance and more time to spend on yourself or with your loved ones. In four-day week trials, productivity was reported to either remain the same or improved in the majority of workplaces. Employee satisfaction also rose, and staff turnover decreased.

Jarrod Harr, one of the human resources professors who oversaw a four-day week experiment in New Zealand, claimed that workers’ “actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five.”

CEO and founder of BakedIn Joseph Munns also claimed making the switch to a four-day week doubled as a recruitment tool. Offering an incentive to bring in talented staff in a highly competitive labour market, and a retention tool to reduce turnover.

From an employer’s point of view, four-day weeks also decrease overhead and general costs. The 4-Day Week Campaign has also released a report that the working model reduces carbon emissions.

Internationally, countries vary in their attitudes to work and time off. The global trend in Europe leans towards a four-day work week because many industries allow for it. Some European countries are also more adapted to flexible work and employment laws have been structured to align with these attitudes.

Conversely, other countries’ primary industries simply do not allow for a four-day work week and demand more hours in work. Adopting a four-day week may not be possible in nations with stricter employment laws.

What are the negatives?

While there is data to suggest it can increase productivity, the four-day week can be impractical or costly to uphold in certain fields and industries. Some industries require a full-time presence or other scheduling issues that make shorter working hours impractical. The lack of standardisation across industries and fields can cause difficulties within a society, as workers may move to industries that require fewer hours.

There is also a risk that workers may fail to meet their work requirements when given shorter hours. If workers are unable to complete their tasks within compressed hours, the four-day week will eventually become too costly for companies to uphold.

From an employee’s point of view, workers may end up putting in the same hours anyway. In a French trial, workers ended up working the same hours or working from home on their days off to keep up with their work demands.

The four-day week can also create complications for multinational companies with workers spread across the globe. Mandating a four-day week via working locations can breed resentment from employees in countries where the model is not used and interrupt international communication or cooperation. International contracts and local employee benefits can also quickly become difficult when moving employees across the globe.

Is the four-day week set to become the norm?

A reduction from the standard five-day working week is not that new of an idea. In the 1930s, economist, John Maynard Keynes predicted that there would be a 15-hour work week “within 100 years”. Technology will continue to create more efficient work methods, allowing the same work to be done in a shorter amount of time.

Although simple in theory, complications can arise when dealing with compressed working schedules on a global scale. The positive results in terms of productivity and employee well-being from the trials in Iceland and New Zealand mean the momentum for the four-day week is accelerating, but there may be more to consider before embracing the model on an international scale.

Need help managing your global workforce, or understanding international employment laws and benefits? Speak to Mauve’s global experts here.