Cognitive Capacity | Coronavirus

The Brain-Based Case for 4-Day Workweeks

Organizations around the world are figuring out how to leverage this moment to build a better normal. They want to sustain the practices that enrich and enliven people, and leave behind the ones that don’t.

It’s hardly surprising why: More than 40% of employees report working longer hours than they would in a standard workday, according to one survey, which also found that more than 50% of people get interrupted by family members throughout their day. Without a way to prevent burn out, leaders risk over-taxing their workforces right when they need focus and attention most.

It’s against this backdrop that one ambitious solution has come back into the spotlight: the four-day workweek.

What science says about working less

There is far less research on the long-term effects of shortening the workweek than there is on what happens soon after. But just about every short-term finding seems to suggest that reduced workweeks—no matter their structure—drive greater efficiency, higher employee engagement, and better work-life balance.

Microsoft, for example, ran an experiment in its Japanese subsidiary in August 2019, in which it closed offices every Friday of the month. A few months later, Microsoft announced the experiment had led to a 40% boost in productivity and reduced time in meetings compared to August 2018. As part of the experiment, Microsoft capped meetings at 30 minutes and encouraged more virtual communication.

A similar story unfolded at Patagonia, where in late 2019 employees recently began receiving 26 three-day weekends a year, as a way to free people up to go skiing and snowboarding. Follow-up surveys showed people not only maintained the same output at work from working nine days instead of 10, but that people saw a greater ability to schedule doctors’ appointments, cook healthy meals for their families, and stay engaged in their romantic relationships.

“So, I think that’s one of the things we need to think about,” Dean Carter, Patagonia’s Chief Human Resources Officer, told NLI on the “Your Brain at Work” podcast. “What are we putting into people’s lives in addition to what we’re taking out, when we measure things like impact of performance systems or even how we look at scheduling?”

One explanation for these benefits is that reduced workweeks honor human beings’ “cognitive capacity.” Just as a sponge can only soak up so much water, and a computer can only process so much information, our brains have finite holding power. After a certain point, we all need to stop working, rest, and recharge. This is especially the case during periods of greater intensity, such as global pandemic.

“And so we need some recovery time,” Dr. David Rock, NLI Co-Founder and CEO, recently told Marketplace, “to have time to organize the rest of our lives and have loving time with family and friends, even if it’s just online.”

How to implement 4-day workweeks

Few, if any, organizations will be able to slash Fridays or Mondays from their work calendars and call it a day. In reality, the move to a reduced workweek will require some flexibility, especially as people gradually begin to commute back into their offices.

Leaders may need to adopt a 9/80 schedule, in which people work 80 hours in nine days and get every other Friday or Monday off. In its experiment, Patagonia opted for 26-day three-day weekends a year because it realized that giving staggered time off would only result in people coming back online when they should have been offline, given their work is so collaborative. However, leaders today may have no choice but to stay in operation all five days, which might require giving a Tuesday or Wednesday off.

In any case, the research does suggest a best practice in giving people autonomy whenever possible. We derive a great deal of reward from having control over our schedules, such that when we lose it, our cognitive function tends to suffer. So even if a reduced workweek isn’t possible just yet, remember that any dose of autonomy—even just a random Friday cut a few hours short—will likely produce benefits that extend far beyond the time off itself.

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