Business Operations

The 4-Day Work Week Is a Mirage

By Sébastien Charland November 24 2021

When I started out my career as an entrepreneur, I was light years away from doing 4-day work weeks—in fact, I regularly worked 50+ hours per week.


I was in my mid-twenties, single, and passionate about my work. I often missed opportunities to see my friends and chose instead to work nights and weekends, convinced that this was the price of my future success. How long would I have to work so hard? As long as it took.

I was not entirely wrong: starting up a business does take both luck and hard work. But I also knew this was unhealthy, at least in the long run.

After a while, we humans can get used to almost anything, including endless hard work with no vacations. So even though in retrospect I could have slowed down after the first two years, it took me another 12 months to really get back to a normal work week. I had grown accustomed to my schedule.

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

W. Buffett

Only after three years and thousands of hours of overtime at Agendrix did I finally begin to slow down.

The Dream of the 4-Day Work Week

A 4-day work week sounds amazing on the face of it. I think that we’re actually conditioned to want it from our most tender childhood. I would be willing to bet on it.

Remember those shortened weeks of school when we had a ped day?

It turns out there are a host of benefits to this much dreamed-of week, as studies and experiments have shown. One of the most convincing arguments is Parkinson’s Law, which has it that the more time we have available to do a task, the more time we will use.

Are you more productive at the beginning of a project or when you’re nearing the deadline?

Other benefits include:

  • Less time wasted online;
  • Happier and more relaxed employees; and
  • Better focus.

And there are tangible examples to back this up. For example, Microsoft’s Japanese subsidiary boasted a 40% increase in productivity after introducing a 4-day work week. The governments of New Zealand, Spain and Scotland are even considering bills that will subsidize companies offering shorter work weeks.

This is a far cry from the Quebec government’s refusal to adopt September 30 as a holiday for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation out of concerns about lost productivity… 🙃

The Managerial Nightmare of the 4-Day Week

All this being said, I do have a confession to make: I think that the 4-day week is a mirage. Realistically, most jobs are not well suited to a shortened week.

  • How do you keep operations going if everyone takes the same day off during the week?
  • How do you organize teamwork if everyone takes a different day?
  • What if my business needs to be able to serve customers 5, 6 or 7 days a week? 
  • Is it realistic for employees to work a shorter number of condensed hours?
  • What about salaries?

The 4-day work week is too great a challenge for most companies, which is why, in my opinion, it’s the wrong approach.

I personally much prefer simplicity and I like to find ways to apply the Pareto principle, i.e., 20% of the effort tends to produce 80% of the results.

A Pilot Project With Unexpected Outcomes

The 40-hour work week has been our default here at Agendrix from our inception in 2015. This being said, we have made significant progress in terms of working conditions: 

  • 4 weeks of vacation from the first year of hiring;
  • Additional holidays;
  • Wellness days off;
  • A spa membership;
  • A home office allowance;
  • And more.

And then came summer hours ☀️

To take things a step further, a few years ago, we successfully launched a pilot project to introduce summer hours consisting of one half day of paid leave per week throughout the summer season. The hours were an instant hit when we announced them to the team.
It was the most wonderful buzz we had seen at our company in a long time!

Young parents were positively thrilled. To allow them to spend more time with their families, the summer hours were made to coincide with the 10 weeks of school vacations. On the surface, everything was perfect. Another fabulous perk at Agendrix.

As awful as the time change 🕑

The problem was when we returned to the normal schedule in the fall. With the end of vacations and the start of the school year, many employees were apprehensive about having to work more hours. This astounded me—going back to normal hours was a source of stress for our employees!

I can’t even fathom the negative impacts of mandatory overtime on the healthcare system.

Coming back from vacation seemed even worse than in previous years, when we didn’t even have the reduced hours in the summer to rest and recover!

In my opinion, the cause of the problem was not the number of work hours. The real issue was the disruption in our routine.

I see it somewhat like the time change, which I consider to be a bad habit. It affects our mood, our judgment and our decision-making. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist on par with Simon Sinek, points out: “It’s time to stop changing clocks 2x a year. It costs us far more than sleep.”

The 35-Hour Solution

So on the one hand, we had a love/hate relationship with summer hours, and on the other, we still dreamed of the benefits of a 4-day work week. Still, we were reluctant to try it out, given the significant implementation challenges involved... This was until we came across an article from the Work Life by Atlassian newsletter, entitled “This is how many hours you should really be working.”

The author explained that the number of hours each person works should vary according to the individual and the type of job they do. As is often the case, the most compelling examples come from the usual leaders in employment best practices: the Scandinavian countries.

Generally, Danes, as well as many of their Scandinavian peers, work an average of 35 to 36 hours per week, and rarely more than 37. This number of hours is where they hit the sweet spot between productivity and happiness. When we read this passage, everything started to fall in place for us.💡

Why grapple with the many challenges of shifting to a 4-day week when you can simply reduce work hours and reap most of the same benefits?

Coming back to the Pareto principle, 20% of the effort tends to produce 80% of the results.

A week after reading the article, we decided to change the length of our normal work week from 40 to 35 hours, without lowering salaries.

A 35-hour (or “reduced”) week is more flexible, more realistic, and easier to put in place. In short, this solution is superior to both the 4-day week and the 40-hour week.

Going beyond the 35-hour work week

We announced this change at a board meeting. To paraphrase one of our directors, David Hervieux, president and founder of Devolutions,

“This is a good change. Devolutions employees have been working 35 hours since we started operations. Some will appreciate the 35 hours and others will have a family situation that will require a little less. But remember that it works both ways; there are also people whose context makes them want to work more. If they are competent and productive, why not allow them to do so?

Remember what I said about my early career?

We had not factored in this possibility at all. But we soon rallied behind Dave’s suggestion. It was a way to go beyond the 35-hour week by allowing for pro-rated pay based on the number of hours an employee chooses to work.

The HR Lab at Agendrix 👨🏻‍🔬

Agendrix is slowly but surely becoming a bona fide HR laboratory. While we questioned many things over the past 6 years, the 40-hour week was almost never up for discussion. Today, we have completed the shift.

Our wager is that we will have fewer hours worked, but they will be more productive and there will be virtually no impact on deliverables. In the process, we also think we will win over our employees to the new schedule.

I won’t hide the fact that, like any change, this shift comes with its own set of implementation challenges. Yet it would be hypocritical for us to write so much about HR best practices if we didn’t even try to push the envelope in our own company. And if turns out to be pandemonium... it will be a good subject for a future post!

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to try this out. We are still small enough to be able to turn on a dime if we need to, but big enough to have the means to match our ambitions. Not all companies are so fortunate.

Speaking of which, I understand that some of you may be in a company that is too big or too small to make a change as substantial as ours.

But what’s to stop you from launching a temporary 37 or 38 hour a week pilot project?

One thing is for sure—there is nothing sacred about the 40-hour work week anymore.
If you don’t want to miss the boat, now is the time to take action. Make time count.

 


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