How Would a Shorter Work Week Impact Productivity in a Remote Work Setting?

Most people appreciate the idea of working less and making the same amount of money. The shortened workweek gets a lot of buzz, but business leaders are justifiably hesitant to take it on. How can you work 20% less each year, and still grow as a business? Heck, if you take that much time off, you’ll almost certainly lose all your momentum.

And yet business after business that experiments with the shortened work week find that the exact opposite is true. In this article, we talk about how the shortened workweek functions and why it might be right for you.

The problem?

Company X brings in one thousand dollars in revenue every working day.

We like nice round numbers here. The president of Company X, Ms. Applesauce would like to make her employees happier with company culture initiatives. The one that appeals to her the most is the four-day workweek.

Like Garfield, she hates Mondays, so why not just do away with them altogether? Except the math is pretty clear on that one. $1000 a day means that this initiative could cost her more than $50 thousand a year—or 20% of their total profits.

You don’t have to go to business school to know that that is a losing proposition. Is the point moot?

Why the point isn’t moot

Research consistently indicates that Ms. Applesauce can have her cake and eat it too. Curl up to a nice lasagna each Monday—that’s another Garfield reference—and trust that profits will remain stable. Why?

The four-day workweek makes people rethink the way that they get things done. Workers self-report wasting as much as three hours a day at work. Granted those figures are on the higher end of the spectrum—something in the Jim Halpert ballpark—but it’s safe to say that most people don’t by default maximize the impact of company time.

And of course, it’s not just people being lazy who are responsible for wasted time. Another four-fifths of people say that their work is interrupted for trivial reasons. The person sitting next to them starts talking. The manager calls a pointless meeting. The office space devolves into an unproductive mess through no fault of their own.

*Oh my, Ms. Applesauce thinks. If we are already wasting hundreds of working hours a year, I couldn’t possibly dream of taking away more. *

Not so fast Ms. Applesauce!

Ironically, the bloated forty-hour work week may be to blame for the wasted time. The average human mind only sustain “deep concentration”—which is to say the period of time in which they are most productive—for four hours a day. During this window they get good work done. Beyond that point, it’s a question of diminishing returns.

Of course, that’s an average. We all know people who put in sixty hours a week and couldn’t be happier doing it. They are what popular science refers to as “outliers”. People who break the mold, so to speak.

Ms. Applesauce doesn’t need to look for outliers to find success. She just needs to figure out how to maximize those “deep work” hours.

And what’s the solution to her problem?

A shorter work week!

Give yourself a gold star. Yes, that’s right. The shortened work week consistently results in increased productivity because it trims all the fat out of a working schedule. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can just throw Monday out the window without making any other changes.

You need to be smart about it. When you take away Monday, you also need to take away an entire working day’s worth of wasted time. That might mean shortening or eliminating meetings.

Eliminate meetings!

Don’t seem so surprised, Ms. Applesauce! You know as well as the rest of us that most of them can be summed up in an email. And a short email at that.

When people begin to value their working time more, they will make the most of it.

Ok, but aren’t we just taking away stress on Monday, and spreading it through the rest of the week?

That’s an interesting question, for which there isn’t necessarily a definitive answer. Some people may genuinely be stressed out by the new accelerated work schedule. They would rather have five not-so-busy days than four fast-paced ones.

Study after study indicates that these people are in the minority. Most appreciate the freedom that four-day work weeks provide. That said, you should speak with your staff before you pull the trigger on any reformative workplace policies.

How does remote work factor in?

Interestingly enough, the concept of working from home is often lumped into the same category of considerations as the four-day workweek. The old wisdom suggested that a person couldn’t be productive at home. Too many distractions. Too little oversite.

Obviously, Covid-19 blew that idea out the window. People are often more productive at home than they were in the office for many of the reasons we already discussed. No meetings. No hour-long lunch breaks. No chit-chat with the person in the cubicle next to them.

They work until they are done, and then they have the rest of the day to themselves. For many people, this meant discovering that they could have an entire working day, and still pick their kids up from school, or eat lunch with their partner, or work out.

Middle ground

That brings us to a final consideration. Flexible work schedules. A middle ground that allows remote workers to go at their own pace. After all, one of the most enticing hallmarks of the work-from-home model is that it allows people tremendous flexibility when it comes to shaping their schedules.

Some businesses are using this fact to create a sort of choose-your-adventure working model. Employees are given a certain amount of work to get done during the week. They can do it whenever they want, and when the work is complete, they are done.

Granted, this model doesn’t work in every industry. Highly collaborative companies need to have everyone logging on at more or less the same time. Yet finding ways for people to go at their own pace consistently results in heightened productivity, and improved workplace satisfaction.

Andreew Deen