Four-Day Work Week: ‘Done Correctly, Everyone Wins’

Job satisfaction and revenue increased; burnout and turnover dropped. Inside one company’s experiment with work’s final frontier.

It’s a dilemma as old as industry. As employees continue to seek increased flexibility at work, employers fear decreased productivity sending dollars down the drain. Even with the rise of hybrid and remote work options, workers and their employers can still find themselves at odds.

However, Veteran HR leader Tracey Power has a singular solution for both parties—one that may force leaders to reconsider their conceptions of productivity altogether: a four-day work week.

As chief people officer at Vaco, a global talent solutions company based in Nashville, Tennessee, Power can attest to the benefits flexible work first-hand. She shares these insights, as well as those on AI implementation in the HR function, and safeguards against a potential recession.

Why is offering flex-gig work so beneficial to both workers and their employers?

It’s no secret that the pandemic brought disruption to the workplace. One of the biggest changes for both employees and employers was the rise of flexible work. Unlike hybrid work—in which employees are typically in the office for three days and working from home for two—flexible work offers a unique situation where, when done correctly, everyone wins.  

Not only does flexible work provide employees the ability to manage work and personal time, but it also brings better balance and focused activity without simply extending work to fill the time allotted. As a result, employers win in that they encourage autonomy, giving employees more control over work time, and employees get the flexibility they desire.

Even better, this shift pays dividends for both parties. In organizational studies, autonomy has long been attributed to increasing job satisfaction. It has also served as a measure of intent to stay, which can help reduce costly turnover.

Tell me your thoughts about employers shifting to a four-day work week—why is that a good idea?

Four-day work weeks, or 32 hours of focused work, have steadily been gaining acceptance in the United States after the resounding success of the four-day work week pilot study in the United Kingdom. According to the pilot study report, the concept of a condensed work week supports work/life balance, reduces burnout, and improves employee health and well-being—all of which translates to increased revenue, increased hiring and a decrease in absenteeism across participating businesses. A very telling sign of the pilot’s overall success is that 91 percent of those companies who participated are planning to make the move permanent.

Employers can use the four-day work week to attract employees without losing productivity, which is one of the most cited concerns employers have about the schedule. It’s important to note that there’s not much research connecting longer hours with increased productivity. In fact, a 2021 paper suggested that overwork—defined as working 55 hours or more each week—is actually resulting in more than 700,000 deaths each year.

Even when employees are working a typical eight-hour day, a recent survey discovered they’re only “productive” for roughly four hours and 12 minutes each day. The remaining hours and minutes are spent in unproductive meetings, surfing the internet, texting and other office distractions.

Knowing that, the question of whether modifying the work week would impact productivity enough to warrant a change in salary or hourly rates becomes a moot point. Productivity often stays the same—and can even increase—during shorter work weeks.

Many companies, like Vaco, have tested this theory for years without even realizing it. We offer “Summer Fun Hours,” where every week or every other week, employees work a Monday through Thursday schedule and have Friday off. During the time when this is offered, we’ve noticed an increase in employee engagement, enhanced work culture and increased productivity.

When employees know they have four days to get their work done, they develop a sense of focus and motivation—why put off until tomorrow what I can do today? And if it works in the summer, why couldn’t it work in the fall, winter, and spring?

As companies strategize on how to attract and retain top talent, four-day work weeks is one of the proven ways to do just that. And it’s a strong differentiator given that most organizations in the US still do not formally offer it as one of their scheduling options.

How are you and your HR team leveraging emerging technologies, especially AI?

As the chief people officer at Vaco, I am always on the lookout for new tools and technologies that can assist my human resources teams. AI tools that can increase our impact and ability to do more are what interests me the most. From speeding up resume review to onboarding employees or searching for top candidates, AI is a tool—like many other tools that HR professionals use to improve the efforts to serve our respective businesses—and it can help streamline processes and support growth.

With this in mind, the discussion about utilizing AI in HR is not simply a question about plugging it in and using it or not. Of course, HR professionals should use all of the tools around them, but how AI is used in human resources, specifically, requires balance.

There is so much potential to use AI—for sifting through mounds of data, applications, resumes and for conducting job description analysis, for example. But it’s critical to remember that we are in the business of people. AI cannot replace human intervention, discernment, connection and relationships.

AI can, however, release us from some of the tactical, mundane, but important tasks that surround the human resources function. What I like most about the possibility of AI is the ability to free up human resources departments to make more meaningful connections and have more conversations with our colleagues and key stakeholders.

What are some best practices that HR teams should employ to position their organizations to better withstand a potential recession?

The playbook for recession response in HR is a bit stale. We all know the standard go-tos when it comes to down periods—eliminate open positions or institute a hiring freeze, offer early retirement, reduce salaries, eliminate bonuses—the list goes on and on. What we don’t often talk about is how to recession-proof our businesses from the beginning, or when times are good, which is why there are these things to consider:

Always be evaluating current roles and strategic plans for the future. What skills, knowledge or abilities will your teams need to be successful as your organization evolves? Evaluate the right time to add talent to your organization or move talent to where the organization is shifting.

The tension between “we have just enough people” and “the company is over-staffed” is tenuous at best. Organizations with solid measures and indicators of when to add talent are a step ahead, and they monitor internal and external data sources to manage the delicate balance.

Invest in ongoing development. The investment in training and development of current employees will enable your company and its team members to take on new roles as the organization’s strategies and initiatives progress. Employees routinely list ongoing development and career growth options as one of the reasons they intend to stay at an organization, so it’s important to keep this strategy front and center.

Foster a change leadership mindset. As John Maxwell once said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.” Recognizing this, how do we prepare our employees for the inevitable change?

Be transparent about where the organization is headed. There will be headwinds or tailwinds as all organizations will be impacted differently—have plans in place to weather the inescapable storms. Even simply trying to listen to the concerns of your employees will go a long way in making your organization recession resilient. 

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