Why the 4-day workweek isn’t for everyoneFeatured

Last year, at the height of the 4-day workweek buzz, several of our employees reached out to ask if we’d consider transitioning over to a 4-day workweek schedule, too.

It was perfect timing. After all, we were in the middle of revamping our PTO policy, which entailed a few experimental changes we were already excited to test out, including: unlimited half days and company holiday swapping to name a few.

And while we weren’t quite ready to make a decision either way, we did want to take this opportunity to run a calculated experiment. After all, we Ethenians believe in approaching our company culture the way we approach our product: Try new things, collect data, iterate over time.

We conducted a 4-day workweek test

So we ran a pilot. For the entire month of July, we closed shop every Friday. Our own twist on the “Summer Friday” trend that doubled as an experiment on the 4-day workweek.

And what we found was fascinating.

While the majority of our employees expressed appreciation for the 3-day weekends, benefiting from more time to recharge and spend with family and friends, a large majority of our employees also acknowledged that they struggled to achieve goals within the adjusted schedule.

And while some employees happily worked longer hours Monday through Thursday in order to accommodate a work-free Friday, others felt their energy reserves fizzle after their usual 8 hours.

Even more troubling, we learned that deadlines were getting missed. Projects pushed back. And employees felt more stressed than ever about all the meetings on their calendars.

Not exactly the outcome most employees were hoping for.

And yet, it wasn’t an entirely shocking outcome either.

Because the reality we needed to face was: The 4-day workweek isn’t for everyone.

As someone who loves being on the cutting edge of “The future of work,” it pains me to say that. Feels a little taboo even. Almost as though perhaps I’m just falling behind the times, too stuck in my ways.

But the results don’t lie.

Our 4-day workweek test results

Our team struggled to meet their goals in just 4 days per week. Many of our employees fell into a cycle of enjoying their 3-day weekends only to come back to work feeling stressed, rushed, and drained as they struggled to squeeze all their responsibilities into the now shorter workweek.

And here’s the thing: That makes sense. After all, we’re a lean and scrappy team. At Ethena, we don’t have excess overhead to spare. Given our company size and stage, cutting out 52 days of work per employee per year would significantly impede our ability to achieve our goals — no matter how much we optimize our meeting usage, asynchronous communications, and time management.

And we’re not alone.

Is the 4-day workweek right for your company?

While some companies might have the perfect organizational structure and cultural environment to thrive in a 4-day workweek, many others would quickly suffer. Not only that — based on just our own small test run, we learned that many employees themselves would suffer. Because the reality is, many employees would simply prefer to spread their work out over 5 days rather than squeeze them into 4.

And while we ultimately decided this particular work trend wasn’t right for us, it doesn’t mean there weren’t still plenty of insights and takeaways to learn from this endeavor.

In fact, we identified 3 critical areas in need of improvement:

  1. We had fallen into a rut of “meeting overload” and needed to learn better ways to lean on async communications.
  2. Our employees were hungry for guidance on time management best practices, including time boxing, prioritization, and blocking off “focus time.”
  3. Employees wanted more focus time and the flexibility to sleep in or sign off early when their workload allowed — without the fear of blocking others on their own progress.

And I know for a fact we’re not the only company that’s come up against those challenges.

3 takeaways we learned from our 4-day workweek experiment

So whether or not the 4-day workweek is right for you, here are a few key tips for optimizing output and minimizing meeting time.

1. Lean on async forms of communication.

The reality is, meetings can often be an ineffective and inefficient way of pushing initiatives forward. You lose time briefing everyone on the context and trying to work around calendar schedules and time zones. Not to mention the stress of having to navigate live discussions falling into side tangents or having to navigate people talking over each other or sometimes — as can happen — speaking in circles. And don’t even get me started on when you have to schedule a follow-up meeting because you inevitably run out of time.

Instead, put all your thoughts into a Google doc and have everyone weigh in asynchronously via the comments section. Not only will this free up more time on everyone’s calendar, it will also make sure everyone has a chance to weigh in and give the decision-maker an opportunity to read through and consider everyone’s thoughts more carefully.

2. Teach your employees about good time management.

The sad but tough truth is that most people are never trained on how to effectively manage their time. They’re simply thrown into their first corporate job with everyone hoping for the best. Instead, teach your employees about critical time management concepts like time boxing, prioritization, blocking out admin time, asynchronous ways of working, and even — gasp — screening emails and Slack messages for deep focus work.

Additionally, prescribe your own HR team to be good about time management, and lead from the front. I recently wrote about ways that HR teams can do more with less resources, and a good chunk of the mindset comes from empowering your employees, their managers – your whole organization, to be effective in all that they do. Both their work outputs and time management.

3. Focus on flexibility over prescriptiveness.

At Ethena, our employees are distributed all across the United States and Canada. That means we’ve got 5 different time zones between us and a whole lot of different preferred ways of working. Some people are early birds, others are night owls. Some have caregiver responsibilities that require them to step away from their desk periodically throughout the day. And that’s OK. As long as employees are communicating with each other effectively, available when they need to be, and getting their work done in a timely manner, we’re not overly focused on when or how they do it.

Since running our 4-day workweek pilot, we’ve invested in equipping our employees with all these tools and more (including adopting a “no meeting day” every other Friday). And I, for one, can personally attest to the positive impact it’s had on my own calendar. Feel free to read more about it and download a free meeting agenda template here.

So here’s to everyone who’s on the fence about whether or not the 4-day workweek is right for you. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But even if it isn’t, that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything new to learn. Discard the aspects that don’t work for you, and leverage the ones that do. That’s what learning and growing is all about.

And hey, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, run your own 4-day workweek experiment and see how it goes. I’d love to hear about it!

I'm really glad to see that there are things your organization could do better (I was reading going, "Why do you need so many meetings? Where are the emails?") and that you acknowledge it.And hey, it still may not be the best option for your company, and that's also okay!
This is super interesting. Thanks for sharing! For my work at Laddrr, I've been doing a lot of research on work environments where moms thrive. Do you happen to know how your working moms, as a subset, tended to fare with the 4-day schedule? Was it as variably as the rest of the employees? (Asking because working moms are generally known for moving mountains during the course of a normal work day because, well, we really don't have a choice. ;)
I was wondering something similar. Since becoming a mother, I've my days have strict start and end times that my colleagues sometimes push against, trying to schedule meetings outside of work hours. The statement: 'And while some employees happily worked longer hours Monday through Thursday in order to accommodate a work-free Friday' had me immediately feeling second-hand stress. I don't think I'd thrive in a 4 day work week right now and, I'm curious how other mothers/caregivers feel.
What a great question @CindyPB — and such a smart point @AlyssaB! I wasn't able to cut the data in that way, but my impression was that it was a mixed bag. From looking at the freeform Qs, I remember that at least a couple of parents expressed appreciation for getting to take a 'school day' off so they could have a break from both parenting and work responsibilities at the same time. But your point rings true, too.My guess is that — as with most things — what works for some doesn't work for others, and the best approach is to work in as much flexibility as you can within the necessary parameters. So far, we've been finding that our 'no meeting' Fridays are meeting that need by allowing people dedicated focus time while also making it easier to sign off early, sleep in a bit, or take extended breaks in the middle of the day (i.e. meeting friends for lunch and not having to worry about rushing back for a midday meeting).Hope this helps — and really appreciate the insight you two shared here!
"And while some employees happily worked longer hours Monday through Thursday in order to accommodate a work-free Friday, others felt their energy reserves fizzle after their usual 8 hours."I think that sort of sums everything up. A four day week is a totally different thing. Otherwise it's not a 4 day week it's just working 5 days in 4.
Exatcly my thoughts
We went a different direction starting during the pandemic when we realized we were all burning out - we started "Slow Fridays"...not quite a 4 day work week, but kept Fridays clear unless it was absolutely necessary, and everyone had the day to get some things done, focus more, and often not necessarily work a full day. Take a long lunch, go for a long walk, stop at 3 or 4, basically just take it easy at work while still working, but getting some of the benefits of a 3 day weekend. Our team really liked it.
That's been our experience, too! Out employees seem to be really enjoying our switch to 'no meeting' Fridays.
I feel the need to push back just a little here. I don’t think you can just cut out a day without adjusting expectations of urgency and high production, especially if the workload is already high given your “lean” team. If employees are enjoying the three day weekend and coming back to work stressed, I don’t think the weekend is the problem. The four day workweek “trend” isn’t about fitting the same amount of work in four days, it’s about creating a greater sense of balance and examining what work can reasonably done in that time. I acknowledge my tone may come off a little salty. I can’t imagine people “happily working” long hours, barely having time to make dinner, foregoing time with their families… maybe some people enjoy their work that much, but I foresee burnout at some point for them. I appreciate your attempt to make the decision from data. I just think this post comes off as a little dismissive of this “trend” that is really a collective cry to not be so oppressed under our harmful capitalist system.
You took the words right out of my mouth. Thank you and bravo.
True. "We just cut a day but didn't see what work really needed to be done" seems like a learning opportunity for management about what work matters.
I agree. My nonprofit org made the shift gradually. We spent at least two years doing half day Fridays before finally pulling the trigger to a 4-day work week. It takes time to adjust. And we also are reevaluating what work should be prioritized as a result. We weren’t trying to cram 40-hours of work in 32.
I'm glad to see that lessons were learned and changes implemented, even if they weren't the same changes imagined at the start. It takes a lot to recognize when something isn't working out and not just abandon it as a lost cause but figure out what went wrong and how to address it.Reading through this, I did get the sense of another area that may need improvement - prioritization. All work feels important, good, and necessary at any company and easily at a start-up. However, this is rarely the case, and much work is "busy work" that can be automated, reduced, or even eliminated. If you find your teams unable to meet deadlines and goals because they took 4 days off in a month, then I think it might be time to look at the workload. - How many steps are required to complete processes? - Is all of the work that is produced consumed? - Do people have access to the information/data/tools needed to complete the task? - How do you determine deadlines? Are they reasonable, and are they well communicated?Of course, you have access to the data and may have already done work in this area or can prove that this isn't the underlying issue. I just thought you might want to think about ways to support your employees when they take their PTO, as I imagine they may be experiencing many of the same issues that the experiment in July elicited.
I think you make a super valid point! Prioritization is absolutely one of the areas that came up and something we needed to provide better support on. While we do feel that our overall company goals were prioritized appropriately and doable within the designated timeframe, day-to-day work prioritization was a different story (i.e. feeling the need to drop what you're doing to answering incoming Slacks) as well as working efficiently (i.e. focusing too much on getting everything 100% perfect rather than focusing on getting something out the door sooner and iterating over time). All very much things we continue to reflect on and (hopefully!) continue to improve.
A few notes:First, the gains in productivity that companies get from a four day work week include attracting talent, lower turnover, and fewer sick days and vacation days because of less burnout. There is no way you could've gotten those benefits with an only one month experiment. Experiments done in other countries lasted six months or longer. Second, the companies that participated in successful pilots didn't just close shop on Fridays, they made changes to their processes and workflows that made it possible to be equally productive in four days. It would take a bit of time to identify issues, make changes, and iterate on them. You note these three big learnings, but what if you'd given your team time to do more implementation and experimentation with them? What might it have looked like in six months? Maybe you could implement these learnings with your five day work week and become mega-productive, but that's not where the evidence appears to point. Third, all the studies have shown that a vast majority of companies piloting a four day work week have seen no drop in productivity and many saw an increase in productivity. If your company did see a decrease in productivity and an increase in missed deadlines, I'm curious what you believe to be the difference between your company and other companies. You cite no spare overhead, but shedding overhead isn't where companies that have successfully implemented a four day work week say they're finding productivity gains. Your company doesn't seem to have a specific model or requirements that would necessitate a five day work week. I'm curious what you believe to be the reason that your company is different from companies where this was successful. If you're going to say the 4 day work week isn't for everyone, then tell us more about who it is and isn't for. Because based on the evidence, "companies with a lot of work to do who already do it pretty efficiently" doesn't seem to generally fall into the category of who it isn't for. The four day work week is not buzz or a trend. National organizations were pushing for a 40 hour week before the 1860s and it took them almost over 80 years to get it. It's now been another 80 years. A lot has changed in 160 years. It is time to do a serious reevaluation of why 40 hours. We know anything over that has diminishing returns. And there's pretty ample evidence that 40 hours has already crossed the threshold of diminishing returns. This isn't about a buzzy new productivity hack. This is about long term reevaluation of the role of work in our lives and what we believe productivity to be and how we value human time and labor. Even if it weren't about productivity, we should be having a discussion about how much time humans should be spending at work. In the 1860s, I'm sure a lot of companies were saying, "Our employees *have* to do 60 hrs per week in the factory to get more done! The 40 hour week isn't for everyone!" Let's do whatever we can to not be those companies today.
I agree it didn't work for your organization, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be implemented across all companies. The 5 day work week is a 100 year old implementation (don't quote me on this, but it's an antiquated work schedule). Why can't companies (and essentially thus people who run these companies) understand we are humans, not machines, designed to work 40 hours a week, with essentially no time during those work week days other than to recharge for the next work day. Two days for a weekend is not enough, perhaps even 3 days might not be enough to "live". What most people are doing on the weekends are just having mirco doses of a life. Even working 40 hours is asking for too much. I've been in jobs where I worked non-stopped from when I got into the office to leaving late because my workload was too much. This shouldn't be the case, people should have a manageable work load, be able to take equal if not more time off on a weekly basis to live.