Are Americans ready for a four-day workweek?

Published: November 06, 2019
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Auburn University Professor Michael Wesson comments on the possibilities of a four-day workweek. Recent news articles, such as “4-day workweek boosted workers’ productivity by 40%, Microsoft Japan says,” are bringing the issue into American conversation. Wesson is chair of the Department of Management in Auburn’s Harbert College of Business.

What are your thoughts about a four-day workweek and its effectiveness?

My answer is the same as the one I teach my students when it comes to issues dealing with managing and leading people. It depends. Now granted, that’s not the answer most people want to hear—but it is the most accurate in this case. When most people think about a four-day workweek, they are thinking of what is called a “compressed schedule”—i.e. squeezing 40 hours into a shorter number of days. If you read the article, that’s very different than what Microsoft Japan did—which is to just give their workers Fridays off and pay them for it. It was literally just a paid vacation day every Friday. Who wouldn’t want that? Also note that there is no reported information on how “productivity” was actually measured.

The research that has been done generally shows that flexible working arrangements (including compressed workweeks) positively affect employee attitudes (job satisfaction and organizational commitment) more than they affect “productivity.” Attitudes are important, though. They play a role in turnover, absenteeism and many other outcomes that employers should care about. The research also shows that these benefits decline over time. There is also some evidence that flexible schedules help to reduce employee stress, but that only occurs when the schedule allows employees to manage work and non-work demands more effectively.

The main thing to keep in mind is that some jobs and types of work lend themselves to a flexible or compressed schedule, but many do not. Service-related jobs have to meet customers when and where they are. If the stock market is going to be open five days a week, are we going to let finance employees just skip some of those days? For workers who do manual labor, does productivity slow during the final two hours of a 10-hour day? We see these arrangements most often in manufacturing settings where there can be a cost to switching out workers or when a company needs operations to run continuously. It also happens in service industries as well, such as hospitals, airlines and safety-oriented professions. Flexible schedules are easier for really large companies to install than they are for small companies or family-run businesses.

Why are so many business models based on a five-day workweek?

I think a lot of it is likely tradition, existing structures that have been set up for work, and the mental models we have in our head when it comes to working arrangements.

Do you ever see such a change occurring in the U.S.?  Why or why not?

I think we will continue to see companies experimenting with it—especially when unemployment is low like it is right now and recruiting is more crucial to a company’s success. When the demand for employees is greater than the supply, it becomes more important than ever for companies to be an attractive place to work. If potential employees perceive a flexible or compressed schedule as a benefit, some companies will try to use that to their advantage regardless of whether productivity goes up or down. Do I see wholesale changes in the U.S. coming anytime soon? Probably not. We’re much more likely to see it happen in Europe first as their societal norms for work are a bit different from ours.

Media Contact

To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Preston Sparks, Auburn University director of communications, at 334-844-9999 or preston.sparks@auburn.edu.