Ahead of an automation and artificial intelligence revolution, and a possible global recession, we are sizing up ways to ‘work smarter, not harder’. Could the 4-day work week be the key to helping us adapt and thrive in the future?

As the workforce plunged into a pandemic that upended our traditional work hours, workplaces and workloads, we received the collective opportunity to question the 9-5, Monday to Friday model that has driven the global economy for the past several decades.

Workers were astounded by what they’d gained back from working remotely and with more flexible hours. Not only did the care of elderly, sick or young people become easier from the home office, but also hours that were previously spent commuting shifted to more family and personal time. 

This change in where we work sparked further thought about how much time we spend working. In 2022, the largest and most successful trial of a four-day working week delivered impressive results. Some 92% of 61 UK companies who participated in a two-month trial of the shorter week declared they’d be sticking with the 100:80:100 model in what the 4 Day Week director Joe Ryle called a “major breakthrough moment” for the movement.  

Momentum Mental Health chief executive officer Debbie Bailey, who participated in the study, said her team had maintained productivity and increased output. But what had stirred her more deeply was a measurable “increase in work-life balance, happiness at work, sleep per night, and a reduction in stress” among staff. 

However, Bailey said, the shorter working week must remain viable for her bottom line, something she ensures through a tailor-made ‘Rules of Engagement’ in her team. “For example, if we don’t maintain 100 per cent outputs, an individual or the full team can be required to return to a 5-day week pattern,” she explained. 

Beyond staff satisfaction, a successful implementation of the 4-day week model could also boost the bottom line for businesses.

Reimagining a more ethical working environment, advocates say, can yield comprehensive social benefits, including balancing gender roles, elongated lifespans, increased employee well-being, improved staff recruitment and retention and a much-needed reduction in workers’ carbon footprint as Australia works towards net-zero by 2050. 

University of Queensland Business School’s associate professor Remi Ayoko says working parents with a young family will benefit the most from a modified work week, with far greater leisure time away from the keyboard offering more opportunity for travel and adventure further afield, as well as increased familial bonding and life experiences along the way.  

However, similar to remote work, the 4-day working week has not been without its criticisms. Workplace connectivity is one aspect that can fall by the wayside when implementing the model – a valuable culture-building part of work, according to the University of Auckland’s Helen Delaney and Loughborough University’s Catherine Casey. 

Some workers reported that “the urgency and pressure was causing “heightened stress levels,” leaving them in need of the additional day off to recover from work intensity. This raises the question of whether it is ethical for a workplace to demand a more robotic and less human-focussed performance.  

In November last year, Australian staff at several of Unilever’s household names, including Dove, Rexona, Surf, Omo, TRESemmé, Continental and Streets, trialed a 100:80:100 model in the workplace. Factory workers did not take part due to union agreements.  

To maintain productivity, Unilever staff were advised to cut “lesser value” activities during working hours, like superfluous meetings and the use of staff collaboration tool Microsoft Teams, in order to “free up time to work on items that matter most to the people we serve, externally and internally”. 

If eyebrows were raised by that instruction, they needed only look across the ditch at Unilever New Zealand, where an 18-month trial yielded impressive results. Some 80 staff took a third (34%) fewer sick days, stress levels fell by a third (33%), and issues with work-life balance tumbled by two-thirds (67%). An independent team from the University of Technology Sydney monitored the results. 

Keogh Consulting CEO Margit Mansfield told ABC Perth that she would advise business leaders considering the 4-day week to first assess the existing flexibility and autonomy arrangements in place – put simply, looking into where and when your staff actually want to work – to determine the most ethically advantageous way to shake things up. 

Mansfield says focussing on redesigning jobs to suit new working environments can be a far more positive experience than retrofitting old ones with new ways. It can mean changing “the whole ecosystem around whatever the reduced hours are, because it’s not just simply, well, ‘just be as productive in four days’, and ‘you’re on five if the job is so big that it just simply cannot be done’.” 

New modes of working, whether in shorter weeks or remote, are also seeing the workplace grappling with a trust revolution. On the one hand, the rise of project management software like Asana is helping managers monitor deliverables and workload in an open, transparent and ethical way, while on the other, controversial tracking software installed on work computers is causing many people, already concerned about their data privacy, to consider other workplaces. 

It is important to recognise that the relationship between employer and employee is not one-sided and the reciprocation of trust is essential for creating a work environment that fosters productivity, innovation and wellbeing.

While employees now anticipate flexibility to maintain a healthy work-life balance, employers also have expectations – one of which is that employees still contribute to the culture of the organisation. 

When employees are engaged and motivated they are more likely to contribute to the culture of the organisation which can inform the way the business interacts with society more broadly. Trust reciprocation is not just about meeting individual needs but also working together on a common purpose. By prioritising the well-being of their employees and empowering them to contribute to the culture of the organisation a virtuous cycle is being created. Whether this is a 4-day working week or a hybrid structure is for the employer and employee to explore. 

CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella says forming a new world working relationship based on trust between all parties can be far more powerful for a business than building parameters around workers. After all, “people come to work for other people, not because of some policy”.