In the January 2023 Harvard Business Review, Amy Edmonson and Mark Mortensen make the case for thinking more holistically and long-term about compensation and retaining talent.
It’s a good article, though anyone who knows the literature on meaning and work, or the ways a higher salary disincentives and disillusions people, will find it makes sense because its evidence is pretty familiar. To me, though, what’s really striking about the piece is how much their case aligns with the case for a 4-day week.
Edmonson and Mortensen write:
The Great Resignation and a highly competitive labor market have made attracting and retaining talent a major challenge for employers. To meet it, many are following a basic strategy: Ask people what they want and try to give it to them.
Temptingly simple as this response is, it can be a trap. It tends to focus discussions on the material aspects of jobs that are uppermost in employees’ and recruits’ minds at the moment. In the past the foremost issue was often pay, but most recently it has been flexibility — notably, remote and hybrid work. And while material offerings are the easiest levers to pull (you can decide to give a bonus tomorrow) and are immediately appreciated, they’re easy for competitors to imitate, and their impact on employee retention is the least enduring. An overreliance on them can set up a race to the bottom as employers strive to outbid one another for talent.
There’s a much better approach-one that improves hiring and retention and shifts the focus of leaders and workers alike from what they want in the moment to what they need to build a thriving and sustainable future for the organization and for themselves. It’s designing and implementing an employee value proposition — a system composed of four interrelated factors.
So far, makes total sense, though nothing more perfectly captures the world-view of the Harvard Business Review and its ubermensch readership than a description of bidding wars as a “race to the bottom.” (As a friend of mine— and an early employee at Google— put it, it’s surprisingly easy to say “It’s not about the money” when you’re enjoying the view from the deck of your Tahoe vacation home.)
Anyway, on to the four factors.
Material offerings include compensation, physical office space, location, commuting subsidies, computer equipment, flexibility, schedules, and perks.
Opportunities to develop and grow comprise all the ways an organization helps employees acquire new skills and become more valuable in the labor market — for instance, by assigning them new roles, putting them through job rotations, offering them training, and promoting them.
Connection and community are the benefits that come from being part of a larger group. They include being appreciated and valued for who you are, a sense of mutual accountability, and social relationships. Their foundation is an energizing culture that allows people to express themselves candidly and engenders a sense of belonging.
Meaning and purpose are the organization’s aspirational reasons for existing. They align with employees’ desire to improve local and global society. They’re the answer to the core question of why employees do the work they do.
Here’s the thing: companies can boost all of these— at once, at essentially no cost— by offering companies a 4-day week.
You might not think of “more time” as a material offering, but the move to a 4-day week benefits many workers financially. They have more time to shop and cook, so they eat out less— which means they’re spending less on food, and probably generally eating healthier, which has longer-term benefits. They often are commuting less frequently (or were before the pandemic). And if you’re a parent, a 4-day week can be a 20% reduction in your child care bill— which in many places is a pretty serious chunk of money. So a 4-day week isn’t just a theoretical pay rise, in the sense that you’re getting paid the same amount to be in the office fewer hours (though you’re doing the same amount of work, so it’s also not a raise). It creates a real rise in your disposable income.
A 4-day week also opens new professional development opportunities. For some firms, “Free Fridays” are a time for people to study new programming languages, or take a class, or work toward a professional certification. At the very least, having more time for life admin and recovery makes you better able to do your job.
Trialing a 4-day week fosters connection and community. It’s a collective challenge that you solve together. You have to communicate a lot in order to manage the tasks involved in doing five days’ work in four. Everybody has to share the burden in order to share the benefits.
Finally, moving to a 4-day week can create a deeper sense of meaning and purpose at work. Whether it’s a founder making a company more sustainable for her employees, or employees working together to achieve a huge goal that many of them would have imagined was impossible, or everybody working together to create an environment in which they can do what they love for decades rather than years, the pursuit of the 4-day week open up opportunities to make work more meaningful, and to invest even small improvements in how you work with a purpose more tangible than “creating shareholder value.”
As Charlotte Lockhart likes to say, the 4-day week is the only employee benefit that employees themselves create. That’s not a criticism of the 4-day week: as Edmondson and Mortensen argue, it’s important that people be able to find meaning, community, opportunity, and material benefit at work. Creating a workplace and working conditions that allow people to create those benefits together not only makes for an extremely attractive workplace; it makes those benefits even more valuable.