Four-day week: A boost to international careers?

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Published on 2022-11-21 at 14:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Presented as one of the new flexicurity solutions, the four-day week seems to have a lot of benefits. Young workers, especially generation Z, are especially favorable to the option. While physicians and sociologists are researching the phenomenon, countries are experimenting with the new system by conducting full-scale tests. How does the four-day work week impact the lives of expatriates? Should it be part of the criteria for choosing your next destination?

The four-day week is gaining momentum

Unilever employees work fewer hours but earn the same pay. After 18-month testing on 80 employees, the multinational based in New Zealand, is expanding its panel. As of November 14, about 450 employees based in Australia (out of 900 in the Australian branch) have been testing the four-day week. The experiment carried out in New Zealand (amid the pandemic) turned out highly positive. It was found to induce more autonomy, more responsibility, more productivity and more efficiency – virtuous circle that Unilever wants to develop on a larger scale.

This type of experiment is spreading all over the world and isn't a new concept. Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland carried out a full-scale test involving 2500 employees. At the end of the study, the analyses were encouraging. It was a " huge success " as there was no drop in productivity. Employees participating in the study were more involved in their work, more optimistic, more self-satisfied, and less stressed. Last June, the United Kingdom launched a large-scale experiment with some 3 000 employees in 60 companies. The test, scheduled to last 6 months, is about to end. Employees were enthusiastic from the very first days. Locals and expatriates alike were already considering ways to use their day off. Most of them said they would spend more time with their families, while others planned to do more sports, go out, do voluntary work, or rest.

Such trials are being conducted in Scotland, Spain, the United States, Japan, etc. In Belgium, the 4-day week is part of a new policy to make working hours more flexible. In France, a third of companies have declared that they will soon start applying the 4-day week, according to a survey by Robert Half in June 2022.

How relevant is the 4-day working week for expats?

Is the 4-day working week enough to motivate moving abroad plans? Not really, although it's a significant advantage as long as employees' salaries remain unchanged. Like locals, expatriates want to preserve their quality of life. In reality, more expatriates tend to move abroad for a better quality of life and work-life balance. For them, the 4-day week clearly consists of many advantages, from the new rhythm of life that allows them to discover their environment to perfecting their language skills and engaging in new activities. But beware of burnout.

Is the 4-day week about doing in 4 days what one is supposed to do in 5 days? Normally not. It's more about reorganizing all the work, including meetings, assignments, and projects, with a new starting point: 4 days a week. However, the number of weekly working hours will remain unchanged: 35h or 39h or more (or less), depending on the country's labor laws.

In practice, many employees admit to working more, especially when remote working. Studies during the Covid pandemic showed the perverse effects of remote working, with employees answering emails on weekends, in the evening, at any time, and not just during working hours. Expatriates also face this challenge. Regardless of whether they have just moved to a new position or have been in the job for a long time, they may want to do more to show that they are as capable as others. Sometimes competing with locals, they want to prove their competencies and, unwillingly, divert the 4-day week from its original purpose.

Does greater well-being equal more productivity?

In 2019, Microsoft Japan tested the 4-day work week, and the results were great. Productivity jumped by 40% as the prospect of having an extra day off boosted employee efficiency. Opponents of the 4-day week point to the risk of lower productivity. Studies show that the opposite is true, or at least that there was no drop (although one may wonder about excessive productivity gains).

The main advantage of the 4-day week is the improvement in the workers' quality of life. That's actually a benefit that leads to others. Employees say they are less stressed and more involved in their work. They feel more valued and freer to accomplish their mission. The 4-day week is also environmentally friendly, involving less commuting, less email, and less digital pollution. Some companies are also embarking on a green revolution for the benefit of employees and the planet.

But to be really effective, the 4-day week must be implemented together with all the players in the company; otherwise, it could lead to negative stress and a race for performance (doing in 4 days what we used to do in 5). It must also be accepted that the 4-day week cannot be applied everywhere. For instance, it isn't easy to set up such an organization in the health sector. In the catering industry, some owners are experimenting. In Lille, a large city in the north of France, the starred chef Florent Ladeyn has switched to the four-day working week. "Would you rather be at 110% for four days or 80% for five? He was convinced by a Danish friend. The operation was a success and won over Florent Ladeyn's 65 employees. For the chef, this proves that a change of mentality in the restaurant world is possible. Although the four-day week is easier to apply in a small structure, the large-scale tests carried out in other countries worldwide show that change is underway.