Work Less, Learn More?

What a four-day working week could mean for learning.

Written by Jonathan Hancock
Published 03 February 2022
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Work Less, Learn More?

When you ask people if they’d like to work four days a week instead of five – eight hours less, with exactly the same pay and benefits as now – most reply with a very enthusiastic “Yes!” In our own survey, for example, 71 percent of respondents said they’d jump at the chance to do a four-day working week. [1]  

And some of them may soon get what they want. There’s a growing body of evidence about the many benefits – to individuals and organizations – of spending less time at work, and the push for a four-day week to be commonplace is gaining force. 

But amid all the talk of ending burnout and enriching well-being, what would be the likely impact of a four-day week on learning?  

The case for a four-day week 

The five-day working week has only been around for a hundred years or so. And some companies have already disrupted it, with around five percent of people in the U.K and U.S. now working just four days in every seven. [2] [3]  

It seems they’re onto a good thing. A large-scale trial of four-day working in Iceland has been hailed as an “overwhelming success.” [4] Productivity was maintained. Customer service was protected. People’s health and happiness boomed. And similar results are being shared by organizations around the world who’ve tried it and liked what they found. [2] 

How did they do it? Certainly not by simply deleting one day from the work diary. Instead, they had to sharpen many of their practices – making meetings more efficient, for example, using technology more cleverly, and giving staff new ways to work undisturbed when required.  

In return, many have seen clear upticks in their results. There are stories of companies whose productivity has risen dramatically. Many have also noticed significant advantages for their people. At U.S. finance firm InDebted, 98 percent of staff said that their new routine had impacted their well-being for the better. [5] 

Learning new ways to work 

All of this suggests that learning will be key to unlocking the benefits of a four-day working week (4DWW). Without new efficiencies, improved communication, and more-effective working practices, organizations simply won’t be able to survive having a day less, let alone thrive on it.  

L&D will have a vital role in this revolution – and they should play it with confidence. Our own research shows that the highest-performing learning cultures use learning to boost productivity and key business results. [6] They’re the ones best-placed to capitalize on innovations like the four-day week. 

And many organizations should be able to tap into a renewed excitement about L&D. According to one participant in a 4DWW trial, focusing on the value of time was like “switching minds on.” They started doing everything more consciously, boosting “intellectual stimulation” all round. [7] 

The 4DWW and learning 

So what else might a shorter week mean for learning? Here are four points about four-day weeks for L&D leaders to consider: 

  1. Happy and healthy people are ready to learn. They’re keen to capitalize on learning opportunities. Their concentration and memory are better. And Gallup research shows that the highest rate of “thriving well-being” comes from working four days a week, compared with five or six. [3] So, in a shorter working week, people will need access to particularly high-quality resources and tools – to make the most of this improved capacity to learn. 
  2. Focused workers direct their own learning. The evidence suggests that a four-day working week helps people understand their role better – including how they need to improve. [5] L&D leaders will need to match this focus by signposting highly appropriate resources, as well as supporting people to choose their own learning. Our research has shown the value of learning on demand, and that’s going to be more important than ever in a four-day working week. [6] 
  3. Learning takes time to sink in. When we’ve learned something, reflecting on it later helps to embed it in our memory, and makes us more likely to put it to use. The 4DWW approach provides a great opportunity for this – if people are encouraged to explore and enrich their learning during their time off. Natalie Nagele, CEO of software company Wildbit, described her “quiet” day as a chance to wander, think, and just let her brain “breathe.” [8]  
  4. We learn in and out of work. An extra day off also provides valuable time for enjoyable, informal learning – reading for interest, say, or exploring a new hobby. But it could also be a chance to do role-related, formal learning – maybe an online qualification, or even a one-day-a-week college course. One company reported people feeling more confident to make choices about all aspects of their personal development after a four-day working trial. [7] 

Risks and rewards of the four-day working week 

As with any significant change, there will also be pitfalls to avoid. 

Employers will need to be careful that learning doesn’t get lost in a drive for efficiency. If the week becomes shorter but the work isn’t done “smarter,” learning may start to drop off people’s to-do lists. 

Managers will need to spot anyone who’s not thriving, because dropping a day could make any existing unhappiness worse. Even though burnout is less likely in a shorter week, the Gallup research shows that more people in the “actively disengaged” bracket are on four days than five – suggesting that shortening the week can make some problems more intense.  

On the flipside, workplaces that embrace flexible working should attract talented recruits – and have high hopes for their development. With the right support to offer them, organizations will be able to draw on their energy and ambition, and potentially raise expectations of learning for everyone.  

How do you feel about “Project 4DWW”? 

This month, thirty British companies signed up for a 4DWW pilot scheme planned for the second half of 2022. [10] And stories are emerging of organizations around the world experimenting with a shorter working week. Once they start, many never go back.  

Some Human Resources leaders have concerns about fairness. What if people are already working four days on just four days’ pay, for example? Or would prefer a different working pattern, and find the 4DWW idea a less-helpful option – a kind of “standardized flexibility,” as one manager put it. [11] There are clearly details to iron out if a shorter week is to become the norm. 

However, flexibility in general is a highly sought-after feature among job hunters, particularly new entrants into the employment market. [9] And there’s now a growing 4DWW campaign, aimed at boosting productivity, business success, and people’s health and happiness, on a grand scale. [12] 

So, for many L&D leaders, there’s a big responsibility now: to offer the sort of learning that will make all of this possible.  

Then the opportunities will be even bigger – if they help their people make maximum use of the extra time, freedom, focus, and energy that the four-day working week could bring. 

Sources 

[1] Mind Tools for Business (2022). The announcement of a four-day working week trial in the U.K. has sparked many conversations about our working lives. [Post/poll result.] LinkedIn. [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here
[2] Soojung-Kim Pang, A. (2021). Why we need to consider switching to a 4-day workweek — now [online]. TED.ideas.com [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here
[3] Harter, J. and Pendell, R. (2021). Is the 4 Day Work Week a Good Idea? [online]. Gallup [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here
[4] BBC (2021). Four-day week 'an overwhelming success' in Iceland [online]. [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here
[5] Foreman, J. (2022). We moved to a 4-day workweek last year. Here’s how it’s going [online]. Fast Company [Accessed January 31, 2022]. Available here
[6] Mind Tools for Business (2020). Back to the Future [online]. Available here
[7] 4 Day Week Global (2019). White Paper – the Four-Day Week [online]. Available here.  
[8] Pinsker, J. (2021). Kill the Five-Day Workweek [online]. [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here.  
[9] Totara (2018). How would a four-day work week affect learning? [online]. [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here.  
[10] Javed, Saman (2022). Four-Day Work Week: Who Has Trialled It and Was It Successful? [online]. [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here.  
[11] The HR Hour (2022). If successful, when is 4 day a week work pattern likely to become a reality? Do you see any compromises? [Post/poll result.] Twitter [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here.  
[12] 4-Day Week Global (2022). We are taking the 4 day week global [online]. [Accessed January 31, 2022.] Available here

About the author

Jonathan Hancock

Jonathan Hancock

Digital Content Editor/Writer
After 15 years as a BBC current-affairs presenter and producer, Jonathan spent a decade in education, progressing from classroom teacher to school leader. He’s passionate about all aspects of learning, but has a special interest in memory, having won two Guinness world records and the title of World Memory Champion. Jonathan has published 14 books on thinking and learning, designed training programs and competitions, and consulted for TV shows. He also loves staying physically fit by competing in running events – from 5K races to ultramarathons.

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