Employers Beware – A 4-Day Workweek Creates A Multitude Of Problems (Here’s a long list of them)

It surprises most that a 4-day/32-hour workweek creates a problem for every hour worked under it.

Let me state upfront that if you have a giddy Pollyanna attitude toward a four-day workweek, this article is not for you. Yes, the 4-Day/32-hour workweek is one of the hottest new trends in today’s tight labor market.

Currently, legislation has already been introduced in California (and several other states) to make it a legal requirement for most businesses. However, before deciding whether you support this “work/life balance” fad. You should first build a comprehensive list of the possible problems that it can create. Many will be surprised when they read that my list of those potential problems is exceptionally long. So I urge you not to be naïve. Instead, be sure to know and understand each potential problem and issue. 

But you must also figure out how you will determine if each of these identified problems is likely to happen in your organization. The most impactful ones are listed under each category of the possible problems. 

Six Operational Principles Of The 4-Day/32 Hr. Workweek 

Six operational principles define and guide the most common 4-day workweek schemes.  They include:

  1. The work is done within eight hours during each day of four workdays each week.
  2. Each employee completes the same work (because the team needs the same work output at the next production step and to meet customer expectations). 
  3. The employee receives the same current total pay and benefits for their 32 hours of work.
  4. The scheme must apply to all employees (both exempt and nonexempt because both need work/life balance).
  5. Additional overtime is not expected (because that would hurt the work/life balance goal). 
  6. No new hiring is expected (because that would raise overall labor costs and reduce team productivity).

Start By Categorizing It, So That “What It Really Is” Is Understood By Everyone

At least to me, labeling this approach as “a work-life balance” solution is misleading. Instead, I categorize it as a “work speedup.” You won’t ever see any reduction in the program’s design’s expected “employee output goals.”And with the same work goals, there is literally one day (20%) less time to complete the required work. Requiring the same work in less time may seem like “a work speedup” to me. Employers could recategorize it, including giveaways, because the employee, in effect, gets a much higher average hourly rate of pay (the same pay for eight fewer hours of work). In return, the employees don’t have to give up anything. 

To any neutral observer, doing the same work in significantly less time can best be labeled as “a work speed-up.” And giving employees the same money for less work should also be labeled as “an employer giveaway.”

Problems And Issues That The Company Must Plan For

During my decades of research on flexible work options, I have discovered that there are literally dozens of “hidden unanticipated problems” that companies might face with this 4-day/32 hr. workweek practice. Here are the top 26 company problems that are often expensive and hard to detect.

  • Other hybrid work time models are superior –the first problem with this 4-day/32 hr. workweek scheme is the least effective of the three most popular flextime options from the employer’s perspective. Those three options include the already mentioned 4-day/32 hr. workweek. However, the 4-day-10-hour day and the 4-day at work and 1-day remote schemes both have more advantages and fewer problems. For example, company data has shown that the 4-day 10-hour a day in the 4- days with one remote day will produce more work for the company. While at the same time, each one cuts one day that an employee most physically comes to work. 
  • The workforce productivity rate will go down if labor costs increase – this practice is total compensation neutral, so when you’re calculating workforce productivity (the value of the output compared to the labor costs). At least on the surface, total labor costs will stay the same. However, the labor costs side of the equation will be much higher if more money must be spent on completing unfinished work. So, for example, workforce productivity will also go down if you must pay employees overtime rates with the additional hours it takes to complete any unfinished work. Also, if new employees, or fill-in contractors, have to be hired to complete that catch-up work. 
  • The workforce productivity rate will also go down if employee output decreases – overall workforce productivity will also decrease if the amount of output produced during the 32 hours of work decreases. And that will happen if workers are confused or stressed by the new “same work in less time” expectation. And if the scheme allows each worker to select which of the five days they work. Disconnection alone would decrease output because allowing individual choice would dramatically increase scheduling and communications difficulties. 
  • Your company’s competitiveness will suffer – the French encountered lots of problems when for years they used a forced reduced workweek. Their main problem was a loss of global competitiveness. Unfortunately, the same competitiveness issue (local and global) will hurt individual companies in tight competition. Business-friendly states like Texas are going to require this. And most international competitors, including China, ask their workers to put in more hours, not less. And those international competitors will still be providing services on Friday when you are completely understaffed or unstaffed.
  • If you don’t measure productivity precisely, you won’t know when it decreases – because any decrease in workforce productivity could be the death knell for this scheme. It should never be implemented without a structured process for numerically assessing any changes in workforce productivity. I found only one large company (Microsoft) that actually applied those measures. Unfortunately, every other pilot company has been satisfied with simply asking employees if they feel that productivity was reduced. Of course, opinions should never be used to measure productivity. I would also note that maintaining productivity levels is much more likely at a small company where everyone knows the impact on coworkers and customers when the work isn’t completed on time and at the necessary quality. 
  • Improvement in recruiting may be short-term – it is certainly true if your company is the only one in the area to offer this benefit. However, you will receive more applications and garner media attention as an employer of choice. Unfortunately, the proposed laws in California and other states will require every company to institute the same 4-day/32 hr. scheme. So when that happens, you must realize that any recruiting benefits will instantly and permanently evaporate. One small exception will occur if the practice is also applied to the company’s jobs in states without the 4-day/32 hr. requirement. 
  • Improvement in retention may also be short-term – just like in recruiting, this practice can’t increase a company’s retention rate if state law requires every neighboring organization to offer it. Also, on the downside of retention, your employees will have one free day off during the workweek, which will make it useful for them to interview at other companies. Finally, if the work speedup increases employee stress, the scheme will actually increase turnover. 
  • Ugly problems arise when you allow the wrong “choose your workdays” option – this “which day” option is the most damaging one you can offer. The worst “which day” option allows each employee to pick any of the five workdays. The four days of work are not the same for every employee. And that option can even be made worse if you let them change their choices periodically, making team communications, coordination, and the scheduling of team meetings extremely difficult. If you feel you must offer a choice, a better approach is to require everyone to work (physically or virtually) on every core day (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday). And then to each team employee to choose another workday as their day off for at least six months. 
  • Customer needs must be met every day – depending on the type of customers you have, and they may still need service every day of the week. Regardless of whether your employees have the day off. And if a customer expects to work with one individual employee, they will be disappointed if they call on their “off day.” Especially international customers, suppliers, and partners, who are unlikely to know or understand that some companies in the US simply don’t work every day of the standard workweek
  • Employees may take a second job – this is a critical but often hidden problem because of the high cost of living. And no extra overtime wages coming in (the priority of work/life balance will also likely spillover and limit the amount of overtime that employees are allowed). Some employees who need more income may use their three-day weekend to get a second job (their legal right.) When they do that, unfortunately, the employee will likely be physically and mentally exhausted by the time they come in on their first workday.
  • It will damage collaboration/innovation –another hidden but the most impactful problem occurs in firms that must innovate. Innovation is the most economically valuable workforce output. Unfortunately, one less day where employees are not physically or electronically interacting will mean a 20% reduction in collaboration and serendipitous meetings. And Google has found that both are major contributors to having innovative ideas implemented. Incidentally, for years, Best Buy had a famous ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) that allowed complete flexibility in where and when you worked. However, they eliminated it to increase their innovation rate despite its success.
  • Employee stress will likely increase – because doing the same work in fewer hours is a “work speed up.” And, of course, like with all expedited work over a certain time. That will mean that your employees will feel more stress because of the pressure to get the same amount of work done in 20% less time. Managers will also be under extra stress. There is no playbook on managing a shift to a four-day workweek effectively. Finally, realize that the first couple of months of the transition will also likely create another kind of stress.
  • Unfortunately, more errors and accidents – completing the same work in less time will mean an increase in errors and accidents. Fixing them will increase company costs. Over time, these accidents will eventually result in higher insurance costs. 
  • Lower quality of work – the stress and pressure to get more work done in less time will also likely negatively impact product, service, and quality. These errors will likely lead to increased costs for work that must be redone. It will also likely lead to an increased number of product returns and even lost customers. 
  • Adverse impact on some workers – older workers and the disabled may not be able to handle the work speed up. With the loss of a single day, there will be less time for all slower workers to “catch up.” The company will also likely have to pay for reasonable accommodations to assist those that need them. You may also find that new hires coming in from other companies might also have difficulty adjusting to this faster work pace.
  • Rush periods – many industries have extra busy weeks and months. Everyone may have to work five or more days a week during those critical times anyway. So, the practice’s yearly “fewer days working” benefits will subsequently be reduced.
  • Exhausted from three-day weekends – some employees may take mini-trips during their three-day weekends, exhausted from three-day weekends. Unfortunately, many will come back late on Sunday exhausted and not ready to start work in a few hours. 
  • You may experience lower team cohesion – “squeezing the air out of work time” will require an increased focus on maintaining work output, which will necessitate a natural or purposeful reduction in employee socialization. And this reduction in coworker interactions, coffee chats, and relationship building will likely reduce team cohesion and an employee’s feeling of belonging.
  •  “Federal holidays on Monday weeks” will be unproductive – if Monday is one of the required four workdays among all employees. That will create a serious productivity problem during the weeks when there is one of the six federal Monday holidays. Of course, the resulting three-day workweek surrounding that Monday holiday will be a week with extremely low overall productivity. Every employee will only be putting in three days of work during those weeks. And finally, because there will only be three workdays in that week. A disproportionate number of vacation requests for that week, if granted, will likely make those weeks’ productivity the lowest during the year.
  • Extra manager time will be required – planning for and implementing something as complicated as a four-day workweek will take up a great deal of executive time. Also, individual managers will have to spend a great deal of time managing its implementation and handling problems. If employees are given a choice of their workdays, the scheduling alone will drive managers crazy.
  • Vendor coordination will be more difficult – your vendors, partners, and suppliers you work with might not have the same four-day workweek. So working together and coordinating with them will be much more difficult. And they may turn out not to be very understanding of the unavailability of your employees.
  • Employee burnout may increase – if the previously mentioned stress on your employees from this new work speedup scheme lasts a long time. The company will eventually experience a dramatic increase in worker burnout and mental health issues. Both of which are expensive and may lead to disability time off.
  • Shareholders may have concerns – this possible problem is often overlooked. From the perspective of “an owner. Most shareholders simply don’t like or even understand the concept of “something for nothing.” So too many of your shareholders, the prospect of letting employees get the same pay for eight hours less work may seem ludicrous on the surface. To the point where they would demand that executives present them with the quantified positive business results from this one-sided giveaway
  • Internal inequity can be an issue – if this 4-day workweek policy only applies to California workers. Companies with employees working in other states and countries may become jealous that they don’t have that option. The same would be true if your exempt workers are not offered the same four-day option. And both would create an “us against them” workforce.
  • Missing business events – because some important business events occur on Friday. Under the traditional Monday through Thursday work schedule. Your company and some employees will miss out on some important Friday business opportunities. 
  • Once started, it’s hard to stop – If it doesn’t work out, it will be extremely hard for executives to drop it when a company is considering a sellout or accepting new investment. Investors may see this lack of flexibility as a factor that makes this company a less desirable target because investors are interested in buying this firm. They may become more reluctant when they learn that this 32-hour workweek will be almost impossible to eliminate.

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Problems And Issues That Employees Should Know

I found that the great majority of employees falsely assume that this 4-Day/32 hr. workweek practice will be 100% positive and beneficial to them. Unfortunately, that’s not true. As an employee, you should adopt a more cynical or at least neutral view of the program until you learn more about its limitations and potential problems. Here are 9 areas where employees and unions should be concerned.

  • Less training and employee development will be available – with the speed up and everyone being rushed to do 5 days’ work in 4 days. It’s only natural that things that are not immediately critical will be put off. And included in that first reduction is almost always employee training, and no one has time to attend anyway. And with less training available and no time to participate in it. Employees will be less skilled, and therefore they will qualify for fewer bonuses and promotional opportunities.
  • Monday message pileup – most don’t think about it, but “message pileup Monday” can be a real issue. Under most fixed four-day schemes, Friday is the most common day off even though you are not working on Friday (or checking your messages during the weekend as part of the work/life balance program). Others outside of the company however will still be working and actively communicating important things before the end of their workweek. So on Monday morning, expect a “Monday message pileup.” This is where your employees will face a literal pile of messages that came in over the last three days. To start with, unanswered messages on Friday may be a problem. Unfortunately, customers and vendors may not be very understanding when they get no response during an entire day (Friday) of everyone else’s workweek. This “information pileup” may make your employees dread Mondays even more than they currently do.
  • A long three days of worry with three days away from solving existing problems, some of your most concerned or insecure employees will be worrying. Because not being able to work on Friday will give them three whole days to worry about things back at the office that still needs to be done. To some, an extra day of worrying (and not being able to do anything about it) won’t be a positive thing.
  • Fewer social interactions – many employees enjoy the social interactions with their colleagues. And with a four-day week schedule, your company may face the unintended consequence of “squeezing out” many of these important social interactions. Including birthdays, coffee chats, and even team celebrations. The loss of these may take much of the fun out of work.
  • Five days a week employees may have an advantage – if your company or the final law covering the four-day workweek in your state doesn’t cover exempt employees. The company may require exempt employees to work on all five days. The added exposure may have an actual (or perceived) advantage for these employees. Those benefits might include more opportunities, added job security, and faster promotions. Because they will see executives more often. And they will always be there whenever an executive urgently needs something on a Friday.
  • Companies may want more – once companies see that the same amount of work can be done by its employees in much less time. Management may begin to assume that their workers have been loafing and not putting in the expected maximum effort. And that may cause management to begin to push harder for more hire work quotas. And once again without any additional pay.
  • Not much gain because no one really works on Friday – because at many organizations, no one really does much work on Friday anyway (TGIF). After some reflection, the employees might realize that they are not getting as much added “time without work” as they thought.
  • Realistically there will be fewer mini-vacations – one of the commonly touted benefits of this work/life balance program is that employees will have a year full of three-day weekends for mini-vacations. Unfortunately, fewer mini-vacations will be possible with high inflation, gas prices, and no added pay. And when there is another spouse that works full-time, or the kids are in school five days a week. The family won’t really be able to spend the employee’s open day or a three-day mini-vacation together. 
  • Union concerns – if there is a union involved, they may initially oppose the government-mandated four-day workweek. First, it would take away a major issue for which they can no longer bargain. And employees may see that getting the government’s benefit is not the reason not to fully support the union. Alternatively, union leaders will just spend their now available time and resources trying to drag another major benefit away from management.

Best Practice Countries, Companies, And Organizations

  • Countries – France, Belgium, Iceland, Spain, and Japan are only a few of the countries that have implemented or are currently piloting four-day workweeks.
  • Benchmark Companies – Microsoft, Buffer, Bolt, and Kickstarter. (All have been short-duration pilots). Perpetual Guardian focused on productivity and their pilot has become permanent.
  • Universities Boston College is managing an experimental trial program with a four-day workweek.

Final Thoughts

Most may be surprised to learn that there are obviously many potential flaws in the 4-day/32 hr. workweek. Even more are surprised to find that if a law mandates the practice, the only proven positive business impacts will likely be a reduction in the use of sick leave and lower energy costs for the HQ building. For employees, the actual gains are likely to be limited to saving on commute costs and being able to run errands in empty stores. And the opportunity to exercise more and get healthier on their day off. And finally, I would advise anyone who is considering an alternative or hybrid work option to consider these factors when they evaluate it.

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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