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The Future Of Work: The 4-Day Work Week

On a recent flight from London to New York, I chatted up a fellow flight mate sitting a few rows away. He was friendly, had a huge smile on his face and was full of wisdom. He was curious about my life and me about his. He is 11 years old, about to turn 12. And as I returned to my seat, I felt a strong sense of urgency to write this essay. It has been under construction in my mind for over a year, and like an artist who feels they are never quite done, I have been waiting to share. However my new 11-year old friend inspired me, to help inspire a better future for him.

A thought-experiment

One year ago, I began asking people close to me what they would do with an extra day in the week. A magical eight day, that no one else knew of. People’s faces started to immediately glow. Eyes began to shine, a gentle smile showed excitement and facial expressions showed a subtle child-like curiosity. The question was not difficult. Practicing dance. Learning a new language. Cleaning the house. Spending more time with nature. Reading a book. Writing a book. Starting a business. Volunteering in the community. And like this, the answers kept flowing, each clearly filled with personal meaning and joy.

And then I asked the unexpected question: what is that worth to you? People paused, unsure how to answer. This question was more difficult than the last. There may have been silence on the outside; however I imagine there was anything but silence on the inside. The initial thought must have been about which dimension of worth to evaluate on. Monetary? Time? The initial glimmer on their faces started to dim, as the reality of making trade-offs started to sink in. Many feel stuck with the decisions and commitments in their life already and the demands on their time or money. Unsure where to find space.

I broke the silence and offered a simple suggestion: why not shorten the workweek and adjust your salary?

The reality of work

A large share of people in professional fields can be characterized as overworked and overpaid. Overworked as evidenced by often feeling stressed or burned out, addicted to being connected 24/7 and rarely feeling the space to truly breathe and relax. Overpaid as evidenced by lifestyle choices (contrary to consumeristic beliefs, ‘more is not always more’).

At the same time, we have another large group in society that are unemployed and underemployed. Simply put, not everyone has the opportunity to work and earn a fair living in our society. And many feel their skills are not utilized and potential not realized.

The original computer was not the piece of technology that you may be reading this on. The original computer was a person whose job it was to compute data, manually. The threat of automation in every industry is real. Over the coming decades, we will experience major disruption in the workforce and those jobs are not coming back.

So we have (a) people that are working too much, (b) people that are not working enough and (c) an expected reduction in the jobs available. Many who are working or trying to work are feeling unsatisfied. The current path is to do the same thing we have been doing, but faster, hoping we will feel better. I believe we are in quicksand right now and feeling symptoms of insanity (doing the same thing and expecting a different result). We can do better.

One of my favourite books is Tuesdays With Morrie, with this one line having stuck with me, ‘you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it’. I don’t buy our current work culture and believe there can be a different future for both people and organizations.

Enter the Dream Program

The Dream Program is a vision for the future of work, where you are encouraged to invest in yourself and the life you want to build in this moment. It is a reversal of ‘once this, then that’ thinking that pervades modern society.

Under the Dream Program, your organization offers you the option to reduce your work time and you offer to adjust your salary. To help you visualize the Dream Program as I explain it, make the assumption you work 15% less and adjust your salary by a similar amount.

Now I sympathize with the reality that a salary adjustment may not be an option for everyone. Many people would not be able to afford it given their circumstances. The Dream Program would not be applicable for people in these positions.

However, many people can afford it and it’s a larger group that you think. Well-popularized research has shown that once we are earning at least $75,000, increases in levels of happiness are marginal relative to increases in salary. I believe the Dream Program can be considered for anyone earning above $75,000 a year.

An immediate challenge in taking a salary adjustment would be that your cost of housing will not be adjusted. Dense cities like New York, Toronto, San Francisco, London and Sydney continue to experience a rising cost of living. Some lifestyle adjustments would have to be considered, so one has to ask, what is that eight day of the week worth to me?

Another challenge is how the work gets done in less time (when it may feel like there isn’t enough time already). I see this as an opportunity to be more efficient with our time. Time is our most valued resource and thanks to digital distraction, we have found countless ways to waste it. The digital wellness movement will soon enter the workplace as the collective consciousness of our modern working world begins to question how tools like Slack and Facebook impact our ability to focus at work. As the time available for work becomes more scarce, I believe we will naturally become more efficient. My meetings would get shorter, fewer emails and Slack messages would be written and I would ask myself more often ‘what’s really important?’.

Improving efficiency is one side of the coin. The other is increasing capacity.

As an employer, if my team approached me and said ‘we will work 15% less, take a salary adjustment and feel happier, more satisfied and grateful’, my response would be ‘yes, let’s do it, and I commit to hiring more people with the additional budget to create more capacity’.

Now the impact on society from a small organization like mine adopting the Dream Program would be to inspire others. The true impact will come when large organizations like a Google, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, AT&T or Citibank adopt the Dream Program. Imagine if all large organizations committed to create 15% more jobs. The ripple effect on society would help solve many unemployment issues. And to help solve underemployment, I think big organizations would realize that the skills they need may not be as readily available and begin to invest in training and development to increase capabilities. And capability building is what we really need in society for the long-term, given the threat of automation.

How to measure work

We currently measure work based on time and economic value, not societal value. For example, a data scientist working for Facebook who spends their day figuring out how to get you more addicted to your phone is paid three to four times what a grade school teacher who is helping your child develop critical skills that will serve them for life. When life hands you lemons, you learn to make lemonade. As such, the Dream Program’s structure is based primarily on time as the measure of work.

A few assumptions:

  • 365 days in a year

  • 260 weekdays (52 weeks x 5 days)

  • 10 statutory holidays (on average, varies based on where you live)

  • 15 vacation days (my American friends are jealous, European friends are upset)

  • 235 workdays (not including vacation, which we’ll address later)

We will use 235 days as the baseline and make all of the assumptions from this starting point for how many days you will work less and the resulting salary adjustment you would need to take.

How to structure the Dream Program

There are several structures for the Dream Program to consider, but first I want to thank the many friends who have indulged in intellectual debate and discussion with me over the past year and contributed to this vision for a better future of work.

The 4-day workweek

I was in Amsterdam last weekend and the Netherlands have already successfully built a norm around shorter workweeks. Many Scandinavian countries have as well. Recent data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that happy team members working shorter workweeks are far more productive than team members who are stressed working overtime.

Working Monday to Thursday becomes our new norm. After ten years of work experience, I feel that Friday is a fairly useless day in most organizations. People on my team do not want to meet with me, for fear of getting more work. Clients rarely see me, and if they do, people are usually checked out and ready for the weekend. And finally, I subscribe to the decision fatigue theory (that we have the capacity to make a limited number of decisions in any one time period), which means that the decisions I make at the end of a long week are probably not my best ones (and this is true regardless if you are a CEO, developer, marketer or accountant).

There are practical considerations that would have to be planned for to make a 4-day workweek a reality. Your industry. Your customers’ expectations. Business travel. Industry events. However I am confident that these can all be solved for with a bit of thought and deliberation.

Note: Friday would be a non-workday only in weeks that do not have a statutory holiday already (as those are already 4-day work weeks!). If we assume 10 weeks with a statutory holiday in a year, then we are talking about 42 non-working Fridays.

Additionally, we can factor in efficiency gains. Let us assume that the baseline efficiency is a 7/10 on an arbitrary scale (I am probably being generous). And let’s assume that the 4-day work week brings us up to an 7.5/10 (for the days that we are working).

  • 235 workdays or 165 weighted efficient workdays (baseline)

  • 42 non-working Fridays (not the statutory holiday weeks)

  • 193 workdays or 145 weighted efficient workdays (4-day work week Dream Program)

  • 18% reduction in working time or 12% reduction in weighted efficient workdays

I believe the salary adjustment required to support a 4-day work week would be 12%. Would you do it if offered?

Buy-back time option

Another version of the Dream Program is to offer the option to buy-back time. Provide a range from 0 days (for those that did not want to participate) to a max of 50 days. And ask team members to commit in advance (semi-annually or quarterly) the days they intend to buy-back. The cost for each day bought can be the salary divided by the baseline number of work days.

  • $75,000 salary

  • 235 work days

  • $300 per day (salary per workday reduced by ~6% to account for efficiency gains)

  • $200 net cost per day bought (net of taxes, assuming a 33% effective tax rate)

The difference between this and the 4-day workweek model is that there would not be consistency in when people are working or not working. The benefit of this model is that there will be team members available five days a week to carry on the operations. The challenge will be that in small teams with specialized skills or roles, projects may get really slowed down, as people will depend on each other to get a project done.

The sabbatical

Academia and some large organizations offer the option to take a paid sabbatical, only once you have put your time in. A version of this under the Dream Program would be to offer the option for an unpaid sabbatical. For example, offer for those interested to take one unpaid month (continuous and disconnected, of course). That is the equivalent to an 8% salary adjustment.

Having one continuous month opens up opportunities for new experiences in life at a time when they can be impactful and meaningful. For example, while I was in Madrid last on self-retreat for a few days, I fell for the city and had the thought that one day, I’d love to come live there for one month, learn Spanish, latin dance and immerse myself in the culture. Last summer, I took a nine-day holiday in Australia ahead of a business trip in Sydney. It was an unstructured self-retreat. I rented a car and drove the coast, staying in random places and meeting other travelers (many of whom were on the road for months).

This summer, my cousin and his family (wife and two kids) decided to go live in France for two months. The experience will be an enriching one for his kids. I suspect many of my friends would choose to go on an extended meditation retreat, do their yoga teacher training, take up an immersion course or work on a volunteer project.

Is an 8% salary adjustment worth the opportunity to explore and experience something you find meaningful and worthwhile?

Unpaid vacation time

Building on the unpaid sabbatical concept, what if vacation time was unpaid and unlimited. The on-demand economy is already there. An Uber driver or Upwork freelancer who chooses not to work today is not paid today. This may be a preview of what will happen in other industries.

One way to structure unpaid vacation time would be to decide what the baseline vacation days are that are included in the salary and give people the option to take additional vacation time (similar to the buy-back model).

Another way to structure this would be to assume 0 vacation days to start with. This would mean first increasing salaries. If standard is 3 weeks of vacation, then salaries would increase by 5.8%. And then provide the option to take unpaid vacation time at a daily rate.

  • $75,000 base salary

  • $79,000 adjusted salary (assuming no paid vacation)

  • 235 work days

  • $336 cost per vacation day

  • 30 vacation days (assumption)

  • $69,000 actual salary (assuming 30 unpaid vacation days)

This model is similar to the buy-back structure, I think providing clarity on how a vacation program changes is needed in any model for the Dream Program.

A combination of the above

There are also interesting combinations that are possible using the models outlined above.

For example, first increase salaries to reflect no paid vacation. Then move to a 4 day workweek, with a 12% salary reduction. Then provide the option to buy-back between 0 and 20 days a year at $X/day or the option for a one-month unpaid sabbatical at $Y/month.

Based on the industry, organization size, culture, financial situation and customer demands, the Dream Program should be custom-crafted for the specific needs you have. If you like the idea but are unsure of which tactics make the most sense for your culture, I would suggest sharing this essay with a few people in your organization. Ask them what they think. Consider designing a pilot program. If you are not in a position of authority or leadership to make such a decision but want your organization’s leaders to be inspired by this, send me their email address and I will share with them this essay directly (without mentioning your name). If they do not respond, I will follow-up with them. And if they do respond, I’ll share with you what they say.

Resetting our priorities

The culture I grew up with led me to believe that I should prioritize my profession first, my relationships second and myself third. And I had previously lived following this sequence. What I experienced was that by the time I got to myself, I didn’t have any time, energy or money left. When I was not working, my time would be filled with commitments to other people.

And then things changed. As I started to become more introspective a few years ago (and used tools like meditation, yoga, reading and journaling to learn more about myself), I noticed that feeling happy, content and at peace was sitting inside of me. The priorities were reset.

Once I prioritize myself, I feel grounded and connected with my truth. After that, while I spend time with those close to me, I show up with an energy and presence that is authentic. I start to naturally feel supported, as others feel my passion and spark. And feeling encouraged, I then can focus on my profession, with greater confidence, conviction and clarity.

This is how I have learned to avoid burnout and experience greater fulfillment, connection and meaning from my work and relationships.

The Dream Program is designed to be that helpful hand, encouraging you to invest in yourself. Be it physically, mentally, emotionally, creatively or however else. So that you can show up with greater energy and enthusiasm for those people close to you, feel supported by them and take on your life’s work with full enthusiasm.

A vision for a different future

People generally are happy, calm, relaxed or energized on a Monday morning and feel depleted, tired, angry or fatigued on a Friday afternoon. We know from our own experience that taking time to rest allows us to show up as our best selves at work.

Life is not a linear path and needs flexibility. If one is caring for an aging parent or child with specific needs, dealing with a mental health challenge (which 1 in 4 people do every year) or is curious to explore a place, culture, topic or skill, the Dream Program offers some guilt-free options to do so.

The benefits for organizations are clear. The trust built by showing we care about you will be seen through higher quality of work and stronger commitment. Focus and efficiency will improve from within the heart of the organization. Flexibility will attract greater diversity in the workplace. Team members will have the mental space to solve real problems and develop new insights. Over the next few years (while this remains a novelty), it will also be seen as a differentiator in a competitive market. But most importantly, as a leader, it is an opportunity to reflect the values of the organization in a practical, tangible manner.

There are risks and reasons the Dream Program may not work. That comes with the territory of being an innovative organization. It is not only about what you work on but also how you work. As a leader, if I can help those around me live their dreams, that’s plenty meaning and purpose for me.

I look forward to Friday, so that I can start writing my book.

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