The Four-Day Workweek Is Not About Working Less

While the four-day workweek still seems risky for most of the world, it seems to be catching on in Europe. In Germany, some workers have won the “right” to a 28-hour workweek, France passed a “right to disconnect” law in 2017, as well as an Italian law recently, passed that explicitly calls out rest:

 The agreement also identifies the worker’s rest periods as well as the technical and organizational measures necessary to ensure that the worker is disconnected from the technological equipment.

While technology does seem to be driving our desire to limit work taking over our lives, I believe there is a deeper tradition of the embrace of a certain type of “leisure” that makes these types of laws a natural fit for Europe. de Toqueville was commenting on the split between the US and Europe in the 19th Century:

In the United States a wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living. It is for the purpose of escaping this obligation to work that so many rich Americans come to Europe, where they find some scattered remains of aristocratic society, among whom idleness is still held in honor.

TL;DR: Americans like to be busy.

A Successful Four-Day Work Week Experiment

America no longer corners the market on busyness. Most cities across the glove are filled with workers who always feel like there is more to do. Yet in places like London, where there is a deeper connection to a certain concept of leisure, they are quicker to limit the amount of work as a solution.

The Mix London recently announced the results of its successful experiment to implement a four day workweek highlighting increased well-being, revenues, profit and client retention and lower levels of absenteeism. The report they created is deep and insightful and goes far beyond the usual surface level culture nonsense that most companies publish.

The report takes a step back and looks at the history of work. It is worth reading in full, but one of the most powerful quotes offered was from Brennan Jacoby, a philosopher who focuses on the workplace:

“Work exists to produce income, the purpose of which is to enable leisure, but leisure exists for its own sake”

Compared to summer Fridays and “flexible work,” which leave the door open to staying longer if your work is important and which, more importantly, always favors the most reward-driven workers, the four-day week sets a constraint which only allows work on Friday under extreme circumstances.

Constraints Unlock Creativity & Reinvention

Basecamp is another company that has experimented with setting constraints on the work-week. Their CEO is famous for saying “40 hours is enough” – which shouldn’t be shocking, but is. In the summer 32 is enough – they work a four-day week from May to the end of August. One of their former employees, Kris Kniles wrote about the experience:

Summer Hours are one of my favorite practices at Basecamp — but not just because they are an extra day off each week. Keeping Summer Hours hones our prioritization skills and breathes fresh energy into our work.

He goes on to share why this is the case:

The key is in the constraint..Removing a day each week forces you to prioritize the work that really matters, and let the rest go. It’s not about working faster, but learning to work smarter. It’s about honing your prioritization, scope hammering and judo skills.

While The Mix has decided to fully enact a four-day workweek, companies like Basecamp are finding value in a seasonal answer.

The key to these programs is like Kris says in the constraint – setting a hard cap helps you focus on what not to do. In our information age, we rarely stop to ask what we should stop doing. Meanwhile executives are coming up with new ways to visually present the strategy in PowerPoint creations, creating hundreds of new reports and analyses that need to be completed by the masses of employees.

Constraints give power back to the people doing the workers.

First, they get the power to prioritize the things happening in their lives. They can take space to contemplate what matters to them rather than merely resting for more work. Second, when the managers responsible for helping to implement the program realize they will need to eliminate work, not add it, they will need to engage front-line workers and ask them “what should we stop doing?”

Should every company implement a four-day workweek? Of course not. But companies like Basecamp and The Mix show that it is possible and that the downsides are likely not as linear as we might expect. Companies should, however, look for ways to ask some fundamental questions:

  • What work should we stop doing?
  • What is it all for anyway?
  • What energy might our people bring to work if we gave them more time and space to engage with the world and live their lives in a way they desire?

If you still need a “business case” you are still stuck in the 1960’s. While we still operate in a world in which humans are treated as resources, they are merely that – humans. If you help them engage with the world better, by setting constraints and limiting the nonsense from work that creeps into their lives, you’ll likely build a better company and enable people to live lives they are proud of.

Further suggestions: If you enjoyed this article you’ll enjoy my conversation with Alex Pang on his books Rest and Shorter, the latter which explores the potential of the four-day week. Additionally, you’ll enjoy my reflections on Keynes essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” as well as my thoughts on Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on “In Praise of Idleness.” Finally, Tash Walker shares how her company implemented the four day week at her company in London.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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