“I don’t have anything left to give,” said a friend of mine the other week. She was stepping away from her job for a break before finding another role. We all know people who are burned out. It’s a problem for about one out of four workers according to McKinsey. So what are business leaders supposed to do when their teams are depleted, and they too may be facing struggles of energy and enthusiasm?
One thing not to do is jump on the bandwagon of a four-day workweek, which some organizations seem to be hoping will serve as a one-size-fits-all Band-Aid to address every concern they have regarding employee engagement and morale. I love the intention and I understand the surface-level appeal of this idea, but I disagree with its utility. The four-day workweek is merely a short-term, Band-Aid solution to far more serious and complex issues. What people fundamentally crave is more flexibility, support, and versatility at work to address the issues leading to burnout—not just mandated time off that compresses work into a shorter time frame.
Before business leaders rush to implement a four-day workweek or any broad, sweeping approach, they should be stepping back to think about what they want to achieve, holistically. Flexibility, in addition to time to pause and recharge, can foster better employee engagement with the business, which leads to growth and profits. A shorter workweek only scratches the surface of the inextricable link between mental health and employee impact. What we really need are more comprehensive solutions that meet the demands of employees and the needs of a company and its customers.
Supporters of the four-day week frequently cite a four-year study in Iceland that found—surprise!—people were happier and more productive when they worked four to five hours less a week for the same pay. Also often cited is a study from Microsoft Japan in 2019 showing that sales per employee were up almost 40% when they worked fewer days.
But the evidence isn’t always positive. A study in New Zealand found that the four-day week resulted in more intense days on the job and cranked up the pressure from management to measure and monitor performance. Other trial programs have been put into motion in Scotland, Ireland, Spain, and at scores of private companies, without much meaningful evidence that shortening the workweek can solve problems like burnout, which is often caused by many compounding factors.
The four-day workweek is outdated
The thinking behind the four-day week is based on an outdated notion that people are 100% on or off at their jobs for eight hours a day. That’s just not how work happens anymore. The pandemic pushed a lot of us from all walks of life to reconsider how we create and receive value. In this “Work Awakening” we’re all exploring new models and systems to figure out where we derive value in our lives. Businesses need to recognize that and reflect it in their policies and practices. Leaders have to recognize that a lot of the best talent is already crafting fluid and customized careers. Companies will be left behind in their ability to recruit and retain innovative business drivers if they remain entrenched in antiquated structures.
The goal of “freeing up a day” is that people are able to take care of personal needs then, but as we all know that’s not how life often works. Not every doctor can see you on Fridays; not every school play happens at 6 p.m., etc. Real flexibility is being able to coach little league every Tuesday at 3 p.m. or start later every other Wednesday to teach morning choir practice.
Freelancers have known this freedom for years. In our Freelance Forward study, the most comprehensive look at the U.S. independent workforce, we counted 59 million Americans who performed freelance work in the past 12 months. Eight out of ten said that schedule flexibility was a critical reason they freelance.
Hours worked is a fungible concept, anyway. Even if you force people to be “off,” we’re all more accessible than we used to be. Economists have even shown that some professionals crave that connection. And even if we give back one day per week, the shift to remote work and elimination of a daily commute puts those hours back on the schedule–assuming people are working during their old commute time.
I think we can do better. Whether you set the policies or have a voice for change where you work, here are some alternative solutions to the four-day workweek that we’ve implemented to keep our team members engaged and confident that they can bring flexibility to their work schedule how and when they need to.
Clear expectations and priorities: Aligning team objectives to your broader business goals sounds basic, but I’ve seen few companies do it exceptionally well. Alignment is vital for work-life flexibility. In an evolved, flexible environment, everyone understands the expected outcomes and is given the autonomy to budget their time in a way that works best for them as long as those goals are met. My talent access team knows we push for no fewer than 90% of our headcount goals filled each quarter. That lets me go to our head of recruiting and say, “Hey, last quarter, we got to 92%, but it was by the skin of our teeth in the last two days of the quarter.” I want to ensure that we are at 85% two weeks before the end of the quarter, so we’re not burning people out. That informs how we allocate our resources and time. We can knock out early wins and build momentum and positivity early, so they can go after the harder ones mid-quarter.
In order for this to work, it’s the leader’s job to create a space for candid and authentic conversations about work-life conflicts. The more open and aligned we can be about the reasons people have for being elsewhere and not online, the better off the company will be. You don’t want people telling colleagues or managers every 30 seconds that they’ve got a “doctor’s appointment” when they have something a little more sensitive to deal with, or something they feel “not allowed” to miss work for, like a school event or personal training session.
The right collaboration tools: Some people want to keep business hours. Some want to work all hours. We have to help people find their harmony. A robust set of collaboration tools can accommodate today’s asynchronous nature of work: Google Docs, Slack (paired with the right expectations for responsiveness), Miro, Jamboard, Tableau, Loom—we use them all. I love anything that helps people carve out enough “deep work time” while enabling impromptu work conversations. The goal should be to strike the right balance between collaboration, focus, and flex time.
Celebrate impact in other ways: To avoid people pointing fingers at those trying to compress their hours, teams need to be explicit about what success looks like. Success is very rarely, if ever, defined by working the most hours. Part of every job goes beyond deliverables into being a net positive for the team and the culture you’re building. If you have four key things you need to get done in the next six weeks, and you get them done, I don’t think anybody would grouse as long as we’ve talked about it as a team and you’re around to help in a pinch.
To attract and retain great talent and provide them with a fulfilling work experience, business leaders need to embrace broader concepts of flexibility, transparency, and trust. Those are the values that, put into action, make the need for a four-day workweek irrelevant. If you can get clear expectations, authentic communication, the right incentives, and robust productivity tools in place, you’ll free up your teams to make a big impact in their own way. Giving teams flexibility and agency drives outsized results and lets everyone win, including those we love and cherish outside of work.
Zoë Harte is the chief people officer at Upwork.