These companies are trying to reshape the work week—just maybe not to four days.

Workers overwhelmingly favor a four-day work week, but some employers think their own ideas are better.
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Francis Scialabba

· 9 min read

Twisted Sister’s 1984 hair-metal anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It” preaches a rebellious message about sticking it to the man. Nearly four decades later, if you squint your eyes just right, you might start to see that ethos resurfacing in corporate America (minus the teased hair and outrageous makeup), as a record number of workers quit their jobs, or otherwise demand better work-life balance and personal flexibility from their employers.

A survey of US–based HR professionals released in June from Lyra Health, Boston University, and Future Workplace showed that HR strategies have evolved to prioritize employee mental health and employee experience. Certain companies have now turned their amps up to 11 and are experimenting with something that might even satisfy the most ardent hair-metal aficionados: the four-day work week.

It may seem like a wholesale transformation of everything we’ve come to know about work, but major firms in the US and beyond have experimented with, or plan to experiment with, a four-day week for full-time workers, without cutting pay.

It’s an alluring recruitment and retention incentive. “The hardest thing in the modern workplace at the moment is the war for talent,” Lachlan Heussler, the chief strategy officer of the international debt collector Indebted, told HR Brew. The four-day work week has been the company’s answer—Heussler said Indebted was able to transition to the schedule even while adding 24/7 customer service to its slate of offerings (customer-service employees also work a four-day schedule, a spokesperson said).

But the four-day work week doesn’t work for everyone. HR Brew spoke with reps from several US and international companies that are all attempting to radically reshape the ways in which they work, albeit with their own permutations, philosophical underpinnings, and, of course, branding. For all of these companies, the objective of increasing mental well-being and normalizing a separation between work and life seem the same. However, the road to get there varies—and it doesn’t always mean signing off entirely for one additional day a week.

Just say no to four-o

“As an employee, you can talk about conscious culture and work-life balance, but you have to walk the walk, if you talk the talk,” said Ian Leslie, the senior director of retail advocacy at the ecommerce platform Bolt. Employees across the US are quitting their jobs in unprecedented fashion: In August, 2.9% of the workforce resigned, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It’s the largest percentage of workers heading for the exit since the BLS started keeping tabs on the metric over two decades ago.

“We know that many employees are prepared to quit if they don’t get the flexibility they need, and so employers who fail to move with the times do risk losing their people,” said Liz Fealy, the global people advisory services deputy leader and workforce advisory leader of professional services network EY, with the September release of EY’s survey of 1,000 international business leaders for its employer-focused Work Reimagined report.

For employees like Leslie, the current elimination of Fridays at Bolt is a welcome reprieve, because it signals the relaxation of expectation. “It fits into the professional schedule that I like to keep, which is work hard, get your stuff done and be able to turn off,” he told HR Brew.

The idea of a four-day work week might seem radical, but the concept isn’t so new. If you’ve been listening to certain scholars, prognosticators and union leaders for the last several decades, the transition to a shorter week is often viewed as just over the horizon.Former president of the United Auto Workers Douglas Fraser told the Washington Post in 1978 that a shorter working week is “absolutely inevitable.” A NY Times article published in 1970 painted a sweeping portrait of American companies that implemented a four-day week, in industries including manufacturing, food service, and healthcare.

Even before then, five-day dogma had its challengers. In 1933, the Senate passed a bill shortening the work week to 30 hours (it never made it through the House), and in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a standard 15-hour work week, owing to technological advancements that would render human labor nearly obsolete (they haven’t...yet).

Well into the 21st century, the five-day work week remains the standard, though the concept of a four-day week still has lingering appeal. In recent years it has been tested by major corporations and governments, including certain businesses in Iceland and Scotland. Microsoft Japan temporarily tried out the paradigm for a month in 2019, finding that productivity soared there.

Which brings us back to the present. The pandemic spawned a crisis of burnout, identified in employee survey after employee survey over the last 21 months. This widespread worker exhaustion has prompted more companies to try something new. “During the pandemic, most people had nothing to do but work,” said Vikki Caruso, the executive vice president of people at the car insurance provider Clearcover. Caruso’s company trialed a four-day work week over the summer of 2021, which employees enjoyed, according to a spokesperson.

Clearcover claims it resulted in 70% of employees feeling more productive throughout the week, according to a screenshot of a company internal survey shared with HR Brew. But the four-day week didn’t stick at Clearcover, which Caruso attributed to the nature of the company’s business.

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“It becomes harder to mandate a four-day work week throughout the entire organization [when customers] use your products seven days a week,” Caruso said. Instead, Clearcover instituted a flexible-Friday approach, which allows workers to work offline and catch up on tasks they’ve been putting off, or otherwise focus on leisure and other pursuits pertinent to life outside work.

The tension between a four-day work week and an organization’s productivity goals was echoed by Grant Christofely, the senior associate of workplace strategy at the architecture and design firm M Moser Associates. He predicted that the four-day week won’t provide the break from unrelenting work that so many crave.

Shorter work weeks won't give people the “opportunity to work on individual work,” Christofely explained. "You'll never feel the release that the four-day work week aims [for],” he continued. "Because you'll always be on, because all that work will be condensed into four days.”

“You’ll never have the opportunity to work on individual work,” during a shorter week, he explained to HR Brew. “You’ll never feel the release that the four-day work aims to [provide] because you’ll always be on, because all that work will be condensed into four days.”

Diving deep on day five

Some companies are trying a different twist on a hardline four-day week. The identity management and access company Okta, for instance, opted for a “dynamic work” schedule that theoretically allows employees to work wherever they want, whenever they want.

Samantha Fisher, Okta’s head of dynamic work, told HR Brew the method is “intended to flow with people’s work-life balance” and accommodate the myriad personal things that crop up in a given day. For instance, if you wanted to do a yoga class every day, five days a week, you could hypothetically make time for it, with one major caveat: scheduling with everyone you collaborate with.

While the shuffling of schedules might cause a headache for workers with different priorities and pilates calendars, Fisher argued that dynamic work is still a more egalitarian method than the four-day week. “A four-day work week is still time-bound,” she said. “There are things that are going to come up in people’s lives...things can radically change very quickly. The four-day work week is only relative, potentially, to what the organization says is a four-day work week.”

Another permutation is the flexible Friday, which isn’t all about disengaging from work in its totality. Mathilde Collin, the founder and CEO of the customer communication platform Front, implemented this policy for her company partly to engender a commitment to “deep work.” On Fridays, employees are allowed to disengage from work if they choose to, but also encouraged to use this time to sign off from digital communication and focus completely on work projects if they so choose.

“I feel like deep work is needed for people to reach their goals,” Collin said. “Front is a company that has insanely high ambitions. I think flex Friday is a reflection of two things...I think it’s more flexible and more likely to prevent burnout, but it’s also a competitive advantage. Both because I think it’s innovative and great for human beings, but also because this focused work brings more results to the company.”

The retention incentive

In September, US employers posted a record number of openings, just one month after experiencing record resignations. This dynamic may give some job-seekers greater leverage, and suggests companies are doing what they can to retain and attract talent.

“In terms of our hiring...[after] the announcement of a four-day work week, our job applications across the entire business are up more than 100% in terms of applicants. And in certain business units, that stat is as high as 700%,” Heussler, of Indebted, said.

It appears workers are enamored with the idea, as well. According to a Harris Poll–HR Brew survey of employed Americans from October, a “large majority (83%) of American workers would be in favor of a four-day work week,” and would be willing to work harder than they currently do to attain it, given, of course, that pay stayed the same.

Bo Pearson, the head of customer success at the athletic-training app Volt Athletics, told HR Brew he’d have to think long and hard about leaving for a company that requires him to work five days a week. “If I were offered a job somewhere else that required me to work five days or weekends, that’s definitely a sticking point that I have to contend with,” Pearson said.

This sentiment is one that companies facing today’s labor shortage are aware of now, judging by the multiple ways they’re experimenting with new, more flexible ways of working. And it’s something even the guys who sang “We’re not gonna take it, anymore” might happily take.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Contact Sam Blum via the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram (@SamBlum_Brew) or simply email [email protected].

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.