A four-hour workweek is more productive and better for the environment

If there was some new workplace seminar that promised a way workers can be happier, healthier, and more productive simply by making one change, you would think it was a joke.

But if it also said it can make the business more environmentally friendly, then you would for sure think it was a scam.

The five-day working week and two-day weekend has been a staple of modern life for so long that we barely stop to question it. But as an outdated product of our industrial past, it may finally be in its last days, with the new norm being a bit more favourable for everyone.

For a long time, work was a place we go to and hours we check off. But in the digital age, as roles become more creative, mobile, and complex, it makes little sense to relate work to either a set amount of time or a fixed place.

Finland’s new prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin, recognised this last year when she floated the idea of a four-day week. Four days a week may be one whole day less than the typical working week, but it is consistently proving to result in everything from more motivated and less-stressed employees to better outcomes and improved rates of employee acquisition and retention. Not to mention more time for that little thing that goes on outside of office walls called life.

Companies have tried everything to improve efficiency in the workplace. Communication apps, time management, agile methodology, etc. And they all have their place. But it seems the next step in improving working life may not be about work at all.

Less time at work is better for everyone

Five days a week and eight hours a day are arbitrary figures that have come to dominate most people’s working lives. Thankfully, several companies are already studying alternatives to this approach and finding significant results.

In August last year, Microsoft tested a four-day week in its Japan division. The company gave its entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row, with no cuts to their pay. Surprisingly, not only did employees take 25 percent less time off during the trial and reduce electricity use by nearly the same amount in the office, but productivity also shot up 40 percent.

This isn’t the only time shorter working weeks have been tested in the corporate world. A company in Melbourne found similarly impressive results when they implemented a six-hour working day. Reducing the time at work led to employees eliminating unproductive activities like sending pointless emails, sitting in lengthy meetings, and cyberloafing (aimlessly browsing the internet). And British companies Think Productive, Elektra Lighting, Radioactive, and Portcullis Legals have all already fully switched to a four-day week.

Making this switch permanently comes with some sacrifices. For instance, Radioactive has reduced lunch breaks to 45 minutes and annual leave by 20 percent. But it also comes brings many unforeseen bonuses, such as allowing new moms to make a smoother transition back to work and reducing the burden of childcare costs.

Better work–life balance and reduced time for messing around in the office seem to be the two main benefits of the four-day workweek. But there is also the argument that it is good for the environment.

One study showed that a shorter working week could lead to a significant cut in carbon footprint due to less commuting, fewer resources being used at work, and having more time to cook and shop instead of relying on convenience foods.

It seems there are no real downsides to introducing the four-day workweek on a larger scale. But yet, companies still worry that it might impact their performance, with some employees also worrying that working less will make them look lazy.

These ideas, however, are unfounded. The five-day week is merely a convention that has come to be accepted as standard working practice for no other reason than because it has. And as the reasons for less time in the office and more time away begin to stack up and make for a much better case, we may find that standard soon changing.