Is the 4-day work week a realistic option for small businesses?

The four-day work week is the latest trend sweeping the business world. Just last month, the biggest pilot program in the world released its findings; the results are upbeat and grabbing headlines.

Employees liked it … a lot … with 39% reporting less stress, 54% reporting improved work/life balance and 71% reporting reduced levels of burnout.

Employers also scored points, like 57% fewer resignations while revenue improved by 35% on average compared with the same period in prior years.

Of the 60+ companies that participated in the British study, 56 are continuing the four-day experiment and 18 have made the new policy permanent.

 US firms jump on the bandwagon 

Overseas businesses have been proponents of the four-day work week for years. Things heated up stateside during the pandemic, as employees began resigning in droves, triggering a worker shortage across industries and pushing employers to search for innovative solutions.

Now, about 40% of American companies have implemented or plan to implement the four-day week, according to a recent survey conducted by Ernst & Young. Qwick, Toshiba and Kickstarter are among the U.S.-based companies that have jumped on the trend.

Can small businesses make the leap? 

Certainly there are challenges for small businesses already stretched thin by economic  volatility, rising interest rates, higher wages, fewer workers and rising material costs.

Some potential pitfalls of a shortened work week include a degradation in customer service, loss of innovation and less time for training. But the payoffs could be substantial: Happier, more productive workers who are less inclined to quit and who approach work with renewed energy.  For example, engineering insights firm Uplevel switched to a permanent four-day workweek after a trial run in July 2022 and says it has not lost one employee since.

Many models to choose from

For retail, professional services and hospitality industries, the classic Fridays off model might be tough. But the four-day work week comes in many iterations.

  • Staggered:  If an employer is worried about being caught shorthanded, there’s a staggered plan where employees take off different days of the week. For example, the staff could be divided into two teams, with one team taking Mondays off, and the other taking Fridays off. This option could alleviate concerns about gaps in service.

  • Decentralized: Then there’s a decentralized plan for companies with multiple departments with different functions. In that model, each department can come up with its own schedule, with some offering the four-day week, while others maintain five days with reduced hours.

  • Annualized: In the annualized plan, employees work an average 32 hours per week, with longer or shorter hours during busy or slow seasons. This plan can work for a wide range of businesses, from restaurants and retail businesses to accounting firms that see more traffic during certain times of the year like holidays or tax season.

You might be offering the benefits of a four-day week without knowing it

The point is to maintain pay and productivity at 100% while employees are given a meaningful reduction in work time.

That may sound tricky, but employees in European, Australian, and New Zealand four-day work week trials found that they could concentrate their focus to be more productive in their shortened work weeks by eliminating distractions – for example – by turning off their cell phones during working hours.

In some respects, businesses that offer flexible schedules and remote work are already part of the way there. Add in generous holiday and vacation days and many employees are already getting the benefits of a four-day work week. In those cases, it may be just a matter of making small tweaks and better communicating the benefits to employees.

Consider your industry’s unique constraints

Some industries are more suited to the prospect. It’s easier for tech and other white collar industries operating in an office environment where flexibility is built in around sick, holiday and vacation days and teams who can cover for their missing colleagues. Many of these companies already offer summer Fridays, remote work or staggered schedules.

Manufacturing companies, for example, already short-staffed and still facing supply-chain issues, might find it tough to reduce hours at the moment.

But for industries where burnout is high, like healthcare, it may be the only way forward. In a Swedish trial, a hospital offered nurses six-hour shifts instead of eight-hour shifts to help alleviate some of the stresses of the job. The results included lower healthcare costs for the workforce and better patient care.

How to get started

 With employees still stressed by the changes in the workplace brought on by the pandemic, from shifting schedules to general office malaise, your small business might want to try the four-day work week to improve morale and bolster retention efforts.  A good place to start would be summer Fridays.

Organizations like 4 Day Week Global and Autonomy  that sponsored the British study work with companies to help them design and implement programs tailored to their specific needs.

Here’s the bottom line: More employers are shifting to a 4-day workweek in order to relieve stress on their employees while improving moral, working conditions and ultimately the bottom line. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Companies have a variety of ways to reduce hours while maintaining smooth business operations. While some small businesses might be wary of jumping in, a trial run could be the best approach.