In Axios, Emily Peck makes the case that “The needle isn’t moving on four-day workweeks.” Despite the press that it’s getting, she argues, the number of postings of jobs offering 4-day weeks is increasing very slowly (with lots of monthly ups and downs), and “‘There are not a lot of clients looking to do this,’ Bill Schaninger, senior partner at McKinsey, tells Axios.”
And, Peck concludes, “work has taken over white collar workers’ lives seven days a week — it just might not be possible to truly dial it down to four.”
So is this right?
Peck is absolutely right that there’s more press, but it’s not just because there’s a greater hunger for shorter workweeks or other ways of working that don’t just outsource the costs of long hours onto workers and their spouses, and treat burnout as an externality. (I think of this as the “you keep the girl, I find another!” HR school.)
Further, the fact that companies are more open about their 4-day weeks is itself significant, as I explain in the 2022 annual report on the 4-day week: it reflects a change in how companies and the public view the viability and desirability of a shorter workweek. Just compare the reception to the news of the 4-day week trial in the UK this month, compared to the 2019 proposal by the Labour Party to move to a 4-day week. Three years ago, lots of Serious People laughed at the idea; now, it’s taken a lot more seriously.
What about the fact that a McKinsey partner isn’t seeing clients talk about this? McKinsey is, after all, one of the most important consulting companies around, and so if it’s not on their clients’ radar, can it matter?
The answer is, yes. With a handful of exceptions– Woowa Brothers in Korea, Unilever, Microsoft, and Medtronic (all of whom are experimenting with shorter weeks in local offices)– the biggest companies moving to a 4-day week aren’t as big as McKinsey’s smallest client. The companies I’ve worked with have had, on average, about a dozen employees, and no appetite for or experience working with a giant consulting company.
Big consultancies generate useful information about what’s going on in markets and industries, but their first-hand knowledge tends to be with places that are a lot bigger (and thus prospective clients). So using them as a measure of the spread of the 4-day week is like using a satellite to look for a virus.
So while the absolute numbers are still relatively small compared to the overall economy, I think that the legitimacy of the 4-day week is absolutely growing, and the size of the movement itself is increasing.
Finally, I think that plenty of companies have shown that even while “work has taken over white collar workers’ lives seven days a week,” it’s possible to dial hours back without completely abandoning old professional norms or ambitions. Rather, what happens is that the way you direct your ambition, or interpret working hours through the lens of professionalism, change.
For one thing, a 4-day week isn’t easier than a 5-day week, despite the ubiquity of lawn chairs and hammocks in articles about 4-day week companies. To make a 4-day week work, you need to really know your market, your work, your priorities. You need experience and good judgment. Successfully implementing a 4-day week is not a sign that you’re lazy. It’s a sign that you really know what you’re doing– and you can execute better than the company than needs 5 or 6 or 7 days to get the same work done.
And as you get better at your work, and as companies become more effective, why shouldn’t they work fewer hours? Being able to do the same work more effectively should be a good thing; we shouldn’t run an economy where we all have to perform like Dan Ariely’s locksmith, who could open a lock in seconds because he’d been doing it for decades, but slowed down because customers would get mad and not tip him if he worked “too fast.”