Fri Jun 03 2022 Michael McQueen

The last couple of years have seen the sharp rise of a very welcome idea: working less. With trends like working from home and the Great Resignation, our collective mentality towards work has undergone significant change. One of the ways we are now seeing this manifest is in the four-day workweek, which is increasingly looking like it’s here to stay.

Many of us assume the idea of a Monday to Friday working week is something that humans have always done – that it reflects some unspoken law about how the nature of work should be. And yet the notion of working five days per week is actually a relatively new concept. In fact, it was stonemasons in Melbourne, Australia, who were the first to achieve an eight-hour, five-day workweek back in 1856.

It was many decades before this idea caught on more broadly and in 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act made 2-day weekends official in North America. Australia followed suit in 1948 that the Commonwealth Arbitration Court approved a 40-hour, five-day working week. This was later reduced cut to 38-hour working week in 1988.[1]

Recent years have seen numerous organisations and industries around the world start to ask whether it’s time to rethink this norm – especially in light of the workplace upheaval caused by COVID-19.

The Scottish government created a £10-million fund in 2021 for companies trialling a four-day week and the Spanish government embarked on a nationwide trial of the idea.[2]

Even the notoriously industrious and hardworking Japanese are wondering whether it is time to prioritise work-life balance for employees. A government policy guideline released in 2021 recommended that Japanese employers permit their staff to opt to work four days a week instead of the typical five. This is a significant departure from the status quo but is seen as a key way to encourage more people to gain additional educational qualifications or even take on side jobs in addition to their regular employment. The government guidelines hinted at an economic imperative too with authorities hoping that an extra day off every week would encourage people to go out and spend, thereby boosting the economy. It’s also anticipated that the move will give young people more time to meet, marry and have children, going some way to solving the worsening problem of Japan’s falling birth rate.[3]

Perhaps the most thorough four-day workweek experiment conducted so far was undertaken by Reykjavík City Council in Iceland. The council allowed all 2,500 employees to work reduced hours spread over four days but for the same pay. The experiment was described as an "overwhelming success" with productivity either improving or remaining unchanged despite the reduction in working hours.[4]  

In its analysis of the Iceland experiment, the UK think tank Autonomy also found that the four-day workweek also significantly increased worker contentment and teamwork while decreasing stress levels. They cited data showing that meeting lengths were cut from 60 minutes to 30 minutes during the experiment and that the adoption of a five-person maximum attendance policy for each meeting made workplace interactions far more efficient. Employees were also found to take fewer sick days.

These results aside, the adjustment to a four-day workweek was not a straightforward one. According to Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, head of the union for state and municipal workers in Iceland, “A shorter workweek also demands a change in culture,” she said, “and letting go of the myth that long working hours lead to better results.”[5]

Þorbergsdóttir’s reflection brings to mind the famed Parkinson’s law which states that work will always expand to fill the time available. First articulated by British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson in The Economist in 1955, this adage suggests that we would likely fill our days with activity whether we were working four, five or six days. The question though is whether a law of diminishing returns applies and the more workdays we have in a week, the less we actually achieve in them.[6]

 Inspired by early successes in four-day workweek trials, consumer goods giant Unilever is planning to experiment with giving their staff in New Zealand a chance to cut their hours by 20% without hurting their pay.[7] 

In January 2022, a technology company named Bolt decided to make four-day workweeks a permanent arrangement following a 3-month trial. In subsequent surveys of staff, employees noted several benefits. 84% said they were more productive, 86% reported being more efficient and almost 9 in 10 said they had noticed an improvement in their work-life balance.[8]

Beyond these improvements in productivity and employee satisfaction, there are other important benefits to four-day workweeks which make this a trend that’s going to be hard to ignore. From an inclusion perspective, a shortened workweek is set to radically improve the participation rates of women who are currently much more likely to leave employment as a result of childcare responsibilities. This trend was exacerbated by COVID-19 with approximately 10 million American mothers opting out of the workforce – up from 1.4 million before the pandemic according to the US Census Bureau.

There are also set to be significant environmental benefits from a four-day workweek. Modelling conducted in the UK found that adopting a four-day workweek would reduce carbon emissions by nearly 20%—127 million metric tons—by the year 2025. Similar research in the US state of Utah found that a four-day workweek would see a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions in the range of 6,000 metric tons per year.[9]

Naturally there are many who remain sceptical of the value and virtues of a shortened workweek. In anticipation of a growing expectation gap between employers and employees, the Belgian government passed a range of reforms in February 2022 giving workers the right to request a four-day workweek provided they can squeeze their existing full-time hours into four days.[10]

There are obviously some industries where arrangements like these will work better than others and negotiating an arrangement that is fair and practicable will be crucial. However, it’s hard to deny that there is a growing appetite amongst workers for shortened workweeks to be on the table. This is especially the case with younger workers according to a 2021 Citrix global study which found that 69% of Millennials and Gen Z believe that employers should offer four-day workweeks as a standard arrangement.[11]

As it stands, all measures point towards the viability of a four-day workweek. Not only will it give us more time for the things we enjoy, but it will improve worker satisfaction, productivity and environmental sustainability as well. For both employees and employers, that is a good deal.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now. 

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[1]  Litterst, R. 2022, ‘4-day workweeks are the new trend taking over tech,’ The Hustle, 11 January.

[2]  Quiggin, J. 2022, ‘There’s never been a better time for Australia to embrace the 4-day workweek,’ University of Queensland, 14 February.

[3]  2021, ‘Japan proposes four-day working week to improve work-life balance,’, 22 June.

[4]  2021, ‘Four-day week an overwhelming success in Iceland,’ BBC, 6 July.

[5]  Thomas, P. 2021, ‘Is a four-day week the future of work?’ The Wall Street Journal, 31 July.

[6]  Topsfield, J. 2022, ‘Reinventing the workplace: The companies moving to a four-day week with no pay cut,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February.

[7]  2021, ‘Four-day week an overwhelming success in Iceland,’ BBC, 6 July.

[8]  Litterst, R. 2022, ‘4-day workweeks are the new trend taking over tech,’ The Hustle, 11 January.

[9]  Mao, B. 2022, ‘Here’s what the 4-day workweek means for equal rights, productivity and climate change,’ The Print, 26 February. 

[10]  Boffey, D. 2022, ‘Belgium gives workers the right to request four-day week,’ The Guardian, 16 February.

[11]  2021, ‘Work 2035: The Born Digital Effect,’ Fieldwork by Citrix.