Where the Five-Day Workweek Came From

Moreover, there’s some anecdotal evidence that a four-day workweek might increase productivity. Google’s Larry Page has praised the idea, even if he hasn’t implemented it. And Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, has his employees work four-day, 32-hour weeks for half of the year. “When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important.  Constraining time encourages quality time, ” he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times. “Better work gets done in four days than in five,” he concluded.

Beyond working more efficiently, a four-day workweek appears to improve morale and well-being. The president of the U.K. Faculty of Public Health told the Daily Mail that a four-day workweek could help lower blood pressure and increase mental health among employees. Jay Love of Slingshot SEO saw his employee-retention rate shoot up when he phased in three-day weekends. Following this line of thought, TreeHouse, an online education platform, implemented a four-day week to attract workers, which has contributed to the company's growth.

That said, the five-day workweek might already have so much cultural intertia that it can’t be changed. Most companies can’t just tell employees not to come in on Fridays, because they'd be at a disadvantage in a world that favors the five-day workweek. 

But there’s a creative solution to this problem. David Stephens, a consultant based in Houston, detailed in a post on LinkedIn the clever system devised at a company he used to work for. The company was divided into two teams.  One would work from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. from Monday to Thursday, and the other would work those hours from Tuesday to Friday.  The teams would switch schedules every week, so every two-day weekend would be followed by a four-day weekend.  The results, Stephens reports, were positive.  The company was open five days a week, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. He claims that morale skyrocketed.  Employees took fewer sick days, visiting the doctor in off hours rather than during the workday.

In this scenario, employees still work 40-hour weeks, but they do so over the course of four days rather than five. This arrangement still sounds sub-optimal, though, as working at full capacity for 10 hours is more demanding than doing so for eight. Despite that, the employees at Stephens’s company still preferred 40 hours in four days to 40 hours in five days. They might be even happier—and work even better—if they worked fewer hours in addition to fewer days.

Given the ongoing conversation about how most of the old ways are just sitting there, waiting to be disrupted, it’s surprising that the traditional workweek remains wholly intact. On top of that, one would think that the slew of corporate perks deployed to attract top talent would have by now extended to a re-envisioning of the two-day weekend. But it hasn’t.

Of course, the upsides of a four-day weekend have yet to be truly borne out, but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests it’s a good idea. So, for now, there appears to be an untapped way for companies to bring on and retain high-quality employees: Shorten the work-week. And figure out a way to do that before everyone else does. 

Presented by

Philip Sopher is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic​.

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