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The Four-Day Work Week: Using a Compressed Work Schedules as a Performance Improvement Initiative


As organizations seek innovative ways to enhance employee engagement, productivity, and retention in today's competitive talent marketplace, the concept of a shortened work week has gained increased attention. While the traditional five-day, 40-hour work structure has remained the norm for decades, some employers have pioneered alternative scheduling models with promising results. One such model showing particular promise is the four-day work week, in which employees work their regular full-time hours compressed over four days instead of the standard five. Though counterintuitive on the surface, research indicates that for many roles and organizations, a compressed four-day schedule can lead to performance improvements by boosting morale, reducing stress, and enabling a better work-life balance for employees without impacting overall productivity levels.


Today we will explore the research foundations and practical considerations surrounding the implementation of a four-day work week as a performance improvement initiative.


Research Foundations of the Four-Day Week


Extensive research has explored the impact of compressed work schedules on key organizational metrics like productivity, absenteeism, turnover, and job satisfaction. Some of the most compelling findings around four-day work weeks include:


  • Productivity remains stable or increases. Studies of numerous organizations that adopted a four-day week found little to no reduction in productivity or quality of work (Eisenstein & Bustillo, 2019; Stannard, 2019). Trust and autonomy supported employees maintaining output within shorter hours.

  • Absenteeism decreases. Reduced absenteeism is one of the most consistently reported benefits. With a three-day weekend every week, employees call in sick less often (Wang et al., 2015; Stannard, 2019).

  • Turnover rates fall. The improved work-life balance enhances commitment and retention. Employees are less likely to seek other jobs when adequately refreshed (Knight et al., 2017; Staines & Quinn, 1979).

  • Job satisfaction and well-being climb. Workers consistently report higher morale and less stress with a four-day week (Eisenstein & Bustillo, 2019; Knight et al., 2017; Stannard, 2019). The extra day off each weekend allows recharging.


This research establishes that for many roles, a four-day week can indeed benefit both individual and organizational performance by making employees happier and healthier while maintaining productivity. However, successful implementation also depends greatly on application within a given industry context.


Industry Examples of Four-Day Week Adoption


Several companies have incorporated various forms of the four-day week model into their operations with promising outcomes. Two case examples provide useful lessons:


  • Perpetual Guardian (New Zealand trust company): In 2018, Perpetual Guardian conducted the largest four-day week trial to date, finding an array of benefits. Productivity either held steady or improved for most employees. Absenteeism dropped, and staff engagement and work-life balance enhanced significantly (Croucher et al., 2019).

  • Uniper (European energy company): Following successful four-day week pilots in several countries, Uniper transitioned over 5,000 employees globally in 2020. Surveys found improved well-being, focus, and work-life harmony. Careful planning addressed operational needs while empowering flexibility (Mitter, 2020).


These real-world cases demonstrate the four-day model's viability across disparate industries from professional services to utilities. With strategic implementation attentive to role requirements, organizations can reap performance improvements through a compressed schedule. However, careful adaptation is needed to suit each unique context.


Designing an Effective Four-Day Week Program


To maximize benefits and address challenges, organizations must design customized four-day week programs factoring the following considerations:


Scheduling and Hours:


  • Determine core operational hours and staff coverage needs. Compressed hours may vary by department.

  • Consider alternatives like longer days versus shorter weeks for certain roles.

  • Assess workloads and adjust to prevent burnout within longer shifts.


Communication and Change Management:

  • Clearly communicate program goals, structure, and policies in advance.

  • Conduct training to facilitate effective adjustment to new schedules.

  • Gauge employee input and address concerns through the pilot design process.

  • Frame it positively as an opportunity rather than mandate to earn buy-in.


Measures and Evaluation:


  • Establish metrics to quantitatively track productivity, costs, and perceived benefits.

  • Conduct pre- and post-implementation surveys to gauge job satisfaction, stress, and work-life balance.

  • Consider a pilot program initially to test impact before full organizational rollout.

  • Analyze both quantitative and qualitative data to identify successes as well as areas for refinement.


Flexibility and Continuous Improvement:


  • Allow for individual schedule adjustments to address unforeseen obstacles.

  • Gather ongoing feedback and iteratively improve the model over time.

  • Adjust schedules or hours on a rolling basis with changes in operational demands.


With careful up-front consideration of these design factors and continuous evaluation cycles, organizations can establish an effective four-day week program aligned with both employee and business needs.


Implementing a Four-Day Week in Healthcare


One industry where a four-day week holds promise but also poses unique application challenges is healthcare. Shifts are needed round-the-clock in hospitals, clinics, eldercare facilities and more. However, with innovative scheduling and a shift towards preventative, outpatient and virtual care models, the benefits of a compressed week may still be achieved in healthcare settings.


As a case example, Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey launched a four-day pilot program in 2019 across select units and roles. Nursing staff on some units adopted 12-hour shifts covering three days per week. Factoring feedback, adjustments were made such as scheduling nurses in the same units on the same days off for better continuity of care and team collaboration (DeMarco, 2019).


Preliminary outcomes were positive. Nurses reported much-improved work-life balance and lower stress. Patients also responded well to having more consistent care teams. Administrators have since gradually expanded the four-day option hospital-wide based on these pilot results. With creative scheduling tailored to clinical care needs, healthcare organizations can deliver on both efficiency and employee satisfaction goals.


Conclusion


As the future of work evolves, employees increasingly seek better control over their hours alongside compelling life and career opportunities. A thoughtfully implemented four-day work week program offers organizations a strategic means to enhance performance in this changing landscape. Research shows the four-day week model can indeed support productivity, cut costs from reduced absenteeism and turnover, and vastly improve worker morale, focus and loyalty through an improved work-life balance.


However, success depends on taking a customized, evidence-based approach to address the unique dynamics of each role and industry context. Careful consideration must be paid to operational requirements, scheduling logistics, change management and communication, as well as ongoing evaluation processes. With attentiveness to these design factors, pilot testing where possible, and flexibility to improve over time, leaders can leverage the four-day week's benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls. For many knowledge-based work environments and some service sectors, the four-day week holds great potential as a performance improvement initiative to support both business outcomes and employee well-being in today's economy.


References


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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