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Who’s Afraid of a Four-Day Work Week?

Juliet Schor talks about how work and the economy might be reorganized in her vision of a four-day work week

Valencia Hosts An International Summit To Discuss The Four-day Working Day Photo By Jorge Gil/Europa Press via Getty Images

4 Day Week Global is a nonprofit organization that recently conducted a trial with 33 companies and 900 workers that replaced the typical five-day week with a four-day work week with no change in pay. After the six-month trial ended, 97 percent of employees who responded said they didn’t want to go back to five days per week, and most employers rated the overall experience 9 out of 10.

The pandemic showed us that so much about the way we work is an accident of history, solidified by familiarity and the passage of time. Maybe the office is where we should do all white-collar work. Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe a two-day weekend is all people need to feel perfectly recharged. Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe, in some cases, four is greater than five.

Juliet Schor is an economist at Boston College and a lead researcher on the four-day work week trial. We talked about how work and the economy might be reorganized in her vision of a four-day work week, why even employers might appreciate an extra day off, and why Americans’ relationship to work, time, and well-being needs some kind of revolution.

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In the excerpt below, Juliet Schor explains some of the findings from her four-day work week trial with 33 companies and 900 workers.

Derek Thompson: Let’s start with your four-day work week trial. Thirty-three companies, 900 workers, mostly in the U.S. and Ireland. I’m first very curious to know, what kind of companies did you enlist in this trial?

Juliet Schor: Most of the companies are in, well, the biggest category are administration, IT, and telecom. The largest company is a software company, but we have professional services, we have nonprofits, we have design boutiques, we have two manufacturing, one construction, education, food. We have a restaurant chain. One in health care, one in retail. So we span a lot of the industrial classification, but it is skewed toward that sort of tech, white-collar world.

Thompson: It’s really good to know that. Because I think when some people look at a study like this or a trial like this, they’ll say, “Oh, the four-day work week can only work for boutique design shops. It can only work for GitHub and software developers. It can’t work for a restaurant or a factory or some other kind of company.” And this trial really did span a lot of different industries.

So let’s talk about the worker reaction. Workers really seemed to like not working five days a week. Those who went to four days per week said they were less stressed, less fatigued, less insomnia, less burnout. They had improvements in physical and mental health. I read that you held their pay constant. So did they work more hours a day, or were they paid the same salary to work fewer hours?

Schor: Nobody got a reduction in pay. So they got five days of pay, four days of work, 32 hours. So these were eight-hour days. It’s not a compressed work day, that’s the first thing. So they basically got a 20 percent increase in pay for those 32 hours.

But let me back up on something else you said, because I want to make something clear. It’s not that workers said they were less stressed or less burned out, in the sense of, we didn’t ask them at the end of the trial, “How did the trial affect your stress?” We had a before and after methodology.

So before the trial began, we asked about their stress in the last four weeks. At the end of the trial, we asked about their stress. So we did ask a few things about retrospective at the end of the trial—tell us how you feel about X, Y, and Z—but the large majority of our results are using a much more robust methodology than that retrospective. And we’re really analyzing how things are at point one and then at the end.

Thompson: That’s great. Thank you for that slight edit. So you did this study with Boston College, people from University College Dublin, University of Cambridge. On the worker side—we’re going to get to the bosses in just a second—but on the workers, which of the conclusions actually surprised you? You, personally, someone who’s written about work and overwork for decades?

Schor: What I was most surprised about is two things. One is that people did not take second jobs. So they had that full day off, about half of them got Fridays off, they’re not trying to earn more money on that day off. Especially in the U.S. that surprised me. No. 2, we had a couple of questions that tried to measure work intensity at the beginning and the end of the trial. And we were concerned about that because the model that this trial followed is something called the 100-80-100 model, 100 percent of the pay for 80 percent of the time, but you do 100 percent of the work.

So one way to get that is speed up, and if that’s all we’re doing, speeding workers up, that’s not good. So the idea behind the trial, we could talk more about this, is that work is reorganized, and low-productivity activities are taken out and people figure out how to get as much out of those four days by getting rid of all the stuff that isn’t adding value. But who knew if that was really going to work? I mean, we know it’s worked in some individual companies, but work intensity did not change. At the end of the trial, when we asked people to assess their work intensity, it was the same level of intensity that they registered before the trial started.

This transcript was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Juliet Schor
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify