A four-day work-week structure has been a topic of renewed debate, and some organizations are reconsidering it. But is this the best way to keep and better manage their best talent? What pros and cons of implementing a four-day week should employers be aware of? Dr. Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at Gallup and coauthor of Wellbeing at Work, joins the podcast to discuss what he has found in his research.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:07
I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we examine the four-day work week, a strategy some employers are using to keep and better manage their best talent. Dr. Jim Harter is Gallup's chief scientist on workplace management and author of the recent book, Wellbeing at Work. Jim, it's great to have you back on the show.
Jim Harter 00:27
Great to be with you again, Mohamed.
Mohamed Younis 00:30
Some employers have been considering shortening their work week, and by that, I mean paying people the same to have three days of weekend instead of two. You've been looking into this for a piece you recently published for Gallup. I wanted to ask you first and foremost why would an employer even consider doing that?
Jim Harter 00:49
Well, I think the primary considerations -- there's actually several. One is that there are higher rates of burnout and stress in the workplace right now. And so there's that and, and just general wellbeing that employers are more and more concerned about. They also want to maintain high levels of productivity. If you go all the way back to when we moved the norm from a six-day to a five-day work week, Ford Motor Corporation started that really. And we had a six-day work week because people needed to take Sundays off and go to church, and part of it was religious motivated, but also just the acknowledgment that people need to rest a little bit. And so that's part of it, that's part of the motivation, I think. So we moved to a five-day work week norm.
Jim Harter 01:36
And now there are, there's been a number of experiments that have been run, looking at a four-day work week and whether that will work. And it kind of comes in a couple of different forms. You mentioned the one about the number of hours worked is one motivation, and the other is, is number of days. So the same, some people are trying same number of hours in a, in fewer days. You know, when we, when we looked, Mohamed, at mood data, where we tracked mood every day, we did see big peaks and valleys. And the peaks in mood were on weekends and holidays, and the valleys start on Monday. So there is something to that. But underneath all that we have to kind of consider another variable, and that's equality the workplace, I think. But the motivation I think is really, really has a lot to do with maintaining high levels of productivity and reducing burnout and stress.
Mohamed Younis 02:23
So you took a look at situations where employers really did this. What was the impact? What did you find?
Jim Harter 02:31
We reviewed a number of experiments, some of them -- there was one done in Iceland over a period of years; there was an experiment started in Spain. There's been some work done in Japan, Scotland, New Zealand. And in general, they found increases in wellbeing associated with a shortened work week. We conducted our own study -- we surveyed 10,364 people in the U.S., and we also measured their engagement at work, and we asked them how many days of work they work right now. Now, right now, only about 5% of people in the U. S. say they work four days a week, 84% five days and 11% six days. So we were able to look at those conditions.
Jim Harter 03:11
And we also captured wellbeing data. We captured data on burnout, how people evaluate their lives overall and how engaged they were in their work. And we did find that, for people who -- the 5% who did report working four days (full-time workers, by the way) per week (and we controlled for the types of jobs that people were in, so that wasn't an influencing factor necessarily in the research), they did have a little bit higher wellbeing: 63% more likely to be thriving if they worked four days versus five days, 57% thriving. So a little, little boost in thriving. And it's slightly less burnout -- often or always, 23% for the four-day work condition and 26% for the five-day work condition. When you go to six days, it goes up to 38%. So pretty big difference when you get to six days.
Jim Harter 03:58
The complexity of all this, though, is that when you look at how engaged they are in their work, the percent of engaged employees was pretty similar across the different days-of-week conditions. But the percent of actively disengaged employees -- these are people who really feel kind of psychologically separated from their organization and have really negative attitudes toward their organization -- that was highest in both the four-day and six-day working conditions; lowest, only 12% actively disengaged in the five-day working condition. So that's a risk is that you're creating more separation between work and, and nonwork. And we all know that work in life are so highly blended now. And so I think there are other considerations to think about. Certainly, a four-day work week can work for a lot of people, so I think it is very situational, but the quality of the workplace is probably the place to start really.
Mohamed Younis 04:54
It's amazing that the discrepancy really is amongst those that are actively disengaged. I was trying to, you know, studying up on, what does it mean to be engaged and actively disengaged and just being disengaged? And those are kind of the three categories one can fall in, based on a series of questions we ask employees and their relationship to their job. One time, somebody explained that "actively disengaged" employee to me as, metaphorically speaking, if your company was a boat, the engaged employees are really rowing as hard as they can. But the actively disengaged employees are not only not rowing; they're actually drilling holes in the boat for the rest of the people. Do you agree with that description? And unpack that for us; what does it mean that it kind of does the worst for those actively disengaged?
Jim Harter 05:45
Yeah, if you kind of break it down into the conditions, it helps people understand what's, you know, what those categories are if we help, help them know what conditions lead to those states of mind where, yeah, an actively disengaged employee is likely to be thinking negatively about the organization and working against the organization's interests -- primarily because they may not, they may not have real good role clarity in the organization. They might come to work confused about what they should do next. Things are changing all the time. There's no explanation given to them why. They don't see how their work connects to a bigger purpose in the organization. They might be working in a, in a job where they can't use their strengths or where their manager leads with criticism and doesn't, doesn't give them credit when they do good work, or where they just don't feel cared about, you know, when they come to work. It is a job -- to them, it feels like a job -- that separation of work and life is very clear, and they want to escape work, if they're actively disengaged. If they're engaged, they look forward to coming to work. A long commute isn't as bad psychologically.
Jim Harter 06:48
We've even studied things like commute time, which has come up a lot with the, with the, this forced-work experiment now and what we've all been able to -- or most of us who, who have an opportunity to work away from the office -- we've all, we've all learned things about what works and what doesn't work, in terms of our work style and our, you know, where we work. And it's made commute time, I think, become a central focus. Relocation has come up as a reason why people are changing jobs now, where we didn't see that before because people know they can work in a variety of different ways. But an engaged worker is looking forward to work. They can see how their work connects to a bigger purpose. They are going to be more productive because of that. They have a chance to do what they do best on a regular basis. They get credit when they do good work. They think of their, their work as bigger than just their work. They can see how their work connects to the bigger picture of what the organization is trying to get done and the mission and the purpose of the organization is about.
Jim Harter 07:48
They also have really good relationships with their coworkers, where there's a high level of respect and where they, they have informal time with their coworkers that, you know, where innovation can happen, where they share ideas, where they have fun. You know, work is a central part of their life, but that work-life balance issue becomes less of an issue because the separation or the escape from work isn't as great as it is with an actively disengaged. That middle category you talked about, Mohamed, we call "not engaged." Those are people that come to work, do the minimum required, but they don't get a lot of excitement out of their job. It's, they still kind of see that separation between work and life. And I think one of the reasons that organizations have thought a lot about the number of days we work in a week, more so than in the past, is because most people fall into those, those two categories of not engaged or actively disengaged, unfortunately.
Jim Harter 08:44
But we know -- and we've worked with a lot of organizations that have improved that. I mentioned that 38% engaged employees -- they've more than doubled that. And so, almost all of their employees are coming to work feeling like they're making a difference. Their managers are, are really adjusting their work to them in their situation, you know, working a few hours when they want to work and not being kind of locked into a particular time frame and having that flexibility -- which, by the way, is the most desired perk, still: flex time. Pre-COVID, it was the most desired perk; of course, people have a lot of flex time now and have since 2020, and have been able to learn a lot about that.
Mohamed Younis 09:26
And flex time is really something that was kind of, you know, often talked about, seldom experienced. But after COVID, it really has sort of imposed its presence in all of our lives, whether, you know, your manager's great about it or not or loves it or not. But the idea is, you can't really block off 9 to 6 and shut out the rest of your life to get things done at work, and then turn your life back on at 6:01. But the reality is now so much of us that are, that can work remotely and are primarily staring at some kind of a screen to do our job, life has sort of has imposed on us now this mix. One thing that was fascinating to me in reading your work, Jim, on this was it seemed like less time at work was good for wellbeing -- which is important, of course. I mean you wrote the book, Wellbeing at Work, but there's this tension with, it's not necessarily great for employee engagement. Am I, am I getting that right? And if so, like how do you kind of square that circle?
Jim Harter 10:29
Yeah, it seems like a bit of a paradox, doesn't it? Because I think when we lead with -- and I'm going to kind of get into some of the policy stuff here in a little bit -- but when we lead with a number of hours worked, and we don't lead with the quality of the workplace, we miss the discovery. We can certainly make rules about when people work and how often. But the assumption underlying that is that everybody is in the same situation. And the other assumption is that the quality of the workplace is doomed to be a negative experience. That work has to be something that drags us down. Those two assumptions aren't right, because most of what drives wellbeing and what drives high levels of engagement is very situational and individual. And managers are in the perfect place to understand those situations and to be able to make accommodations for them.
Jim Harter 11:22
For one person, a four-day work week might be the perfect solution because of their life situation. For another person, it might actually create more stress because that person might want to put in some work on a Friday or they might want to put in some work even on a Sunday to get ready for Monday, so they feel more confident in what they're going to present on Monday or getting prepared for a meeting or finishing something up so it's not a burden on Monday. Individuals should have the flexibility to be able to do that. And the best managing is very situational, based on the individual, their strengths, their job, what's best for the customer, the organization, their team. And all those contingencies need to flow through the individuals in your organization.
Jim Harter 12:05
And so that's why if we lead with the quality of the workplace, then we can adjust the hours to the individual and still get a lot of work done and be productive. And that, that's the big discovery in the workplace. And I think sometimes it's easiest, it's easy for us to kind of check a box and say, "We're going to change our policy to this." Well, the best policy I've seen, and we've, and as you mentioned, Mohamed, it was more rare than common pre-COVID -- and that's a policy around flex time, where it works for your organization to do that. Now, a lot of people have experienced that and that's one of the reasons that we're seeing some response to the labor market right now -- record levels of quits likely related to that. Again, I said relocation was one of the things that's popped up.
Jim Harter 12:49
Still, still though, at the top of the list reasons why people are changing jobs is, is career development, which unfortunately isn't happening inside organizations; people have to go elsewhere to get that. Pay is an issue. But pay becomes a much bigger issue if you're "not engaged" or actively disengaged. And the people that are leaving now are the same people who were looking before; the people who are not engaged or actively disengaged, their rate of leaving has gone up a little bit more even than it was in the past. The engaged people are leaving at about the same rate -- sometimes engaged people do leave; about 30% of them at least looking around and watching for opportunities. But pay has to be a lot higher for them to make those kinds of jumps. But I guess my underlying point here is the quality the workplace has a tremendous impact on not only productivity, but also people's decisions about where they are going to go next in this new environment, in the reaction to the, a way of working that a lot of people didn't even think was possible in the past.
Mohamed Younis 13:41
What amazes me about so much of this area of work, Jim, is that it seems like, you know, our human tendency a lot of times might be, as leaders in any situation -- and we all get to be interchangeably leaders, even if we're not sort of a manager of a team -- is let's let the people who are disgruntled sit down, let us know what they want and let's address those things (so in, in research talk, that's those actively disengaged) and sort of cater to what those individuals, you know, think a better work environment, work setup would create. A lot of your work over the years has really proven that that is like the wrongest way to go about it. And that there are actually very quantitative ways that we've learned does create a more productive, more engaged workplace and environment.
Mohamed Younis 14:29
So let me ask -- and I'd love to ask you this question every time we talk -- because this really touches everyone's life who has a job. We've all had great managers; we've all had horrible managers. We've all had jobs we love and jobs we hate. If you haven't had a job you hate, you're extremely lucky or extremely young -- we'll see how it ends out. But if I'm right now, if I'm an employee and I have a bad manager, what advice do you give me in managing that? Is it about asking for a four-day work week? Is it about bringing up complaints about things in the, in the workforce that are not working? What is your best advice to employees who are stuck right now in a situation with the manager that isn't taking this approach?
Jim Harter 15:11
Well, unfortunately, some of them now are making the decision to leave because the labor market allows them to do that right now. And that's, that's always an option for people with bad managers. I would like to underscore, you know, one of the earlier points, that when it comes to overall wellbeing -- and we can think about this for ourselves individually -- when it comes to overall wellbeing, the quality of the work experience has 2 1/2 to 3 times the impact of number of days or hours worked. So just think about that when you, when you're thinking about the days you work or, you know, what kind of work environment you want -- do you want to go somewhere for a four-day work week? That might be right for you. But the quality the workplace is gonna have a much bigger impact than the number of days or hours that you work. So keep that in mind.
Jim Harter 15:54
But when it comes to, let's say you've got a bad manager. There are different categories of bad managers, so that needs to be considered also. There's some that are just lethargic and don't take initiative and, and don't do all the situational managing that we talked about earlier, Mohamed. There are, and then there are managers that are just negative, you know, all the time and bring people down, maybe don't give people the credit they deserve, maybe take the credit for the, for the team's accomplishments instead of giving it back to the team. And then there's some managers who will engage their own team but create a silo where, "This is my tribe and we're against everybody else." Those are three kind of categories that I'd consider of bad managers.
Jim Harter 16:34
But one thing I think any individual can do if they choose to stay -- and they might be really connected to what the organization's about and, and feel intense responsibility for what the organization is doing. One is, they're going to have to take on more of a leadership role if they've got a bad manager. You're going to have to initiate clarifying expectations; initiate, you know, more meetings with your manager to, to make sure that you know what your role is and how it relates to what other people in the team's role is. You might even have to take a little bit more of a role of helping your teammates know what's expected of them and clarify -- so that that role of ongoing clarification, I think, is really important to reduce stress so that we're all on the same page and you're not, not coming to work confused about what you're supposed to do next. Asking for feedback more often is really important -- not only from your manager but from your coworkers, so you can kind of know what you're doing best and what, what, what you can improve on to get constructive criticism, particularly from people that you trust on your team. You're gonna have to initiate some of those ongoing conversations that we know are so important right now, when, you know, people are separated more and -- it was always important, but when we got more kind of hybrid kind of work going on now, we have to be intentional about connecting more often.
Jim Harter 17:53
And sharing input from customers on what's going on to kind of help the manager see if, if you've got something that you're thinking about that you think would make the team better or make the organization better, put it in the context of high productivity, better customer service. So if you're asking for something, make sure that you present it to the manager in terms of what's going to make the team more productive and provide that kind of sort of objectivity around it. Those are, those are kind of some, some things to be thinking about. Also, you might even take the approach of getting to know what that manager's strengths are. Sometimes people have idiosyncrasies about them that we don't really, sometimes we can see them as negatives, when they're actually just who that person is, and we need to know how to leverage those strengths a little bit better. So we need to kind of some strengths-based language around it. But it's a very tough situation to be in. Unfortunately, too many people are in that situation, and I think a lot of them now are choosing their other alternatives out there.
Mohamed Younis 18:50
Let's take it now from the other side. If I'm, if I'm a leader of some sort -- of a team, of a unit of, I carry an important part of a responsibility for a larger group, if I have responsibility and agency in the workplace environment, what's your advice to me, Jim, on how I can improve the work of my team and the, and the engagement? Obviously, through this work, we've learned, giving them a day off is not the "silver bullet" answer. How do I create a better environment?
Jim Harter 19:22
Well you're going to have -- I think one of the really important things from a leadership standpoint is you're going to hear from some employees who are very vocal and some employees who will actually express opinions about what should be done that other employees may not have the courage to confront. And so I think, you know, one thing that can be, be a detriment for leaders when they just start labeling someone as negative -- some people are negative without, you know, just, just to be negative. But many people who have constructive criticism have it for the right reason. And so I think first starting with -- I mentioned the strengths component. So important when you manage individuals to know who they are and you have some language around why they are who they are, you know, and to be able to relate to it from that perspective -- I think that's really important. The other thing is when people, people sometimes have constructive criticism, to help them think about how that ties to the bigger purpose of the organization and the outcomes the organization is trying to achieve. So I think that can kind of be a filtering mechanism and help people understand, "Well, my opinion counts here. But in this situation, we're not going to be able to do what I thought we could do, because it doesn't fit into where we're headed as an organization. In another situation, we can." But to know why is really important.
Jim Harter 20:41
It's surprising to me, as I've looked at the data over the last several decades, at how much a challenge it is in organizations for people just to listen to other people's opinions. And that step, as a leader, I think is really important: to do a lot of listening, and particularly now -- but again, it's always kind of been the case, but particularly now -- with more hybrid-type environments, to be listening more often, asking questions, trying to understand the context that people are working with and the, and adjust priorities more continuously than once a year or twice a year. It's more of a continuous process of listening to people's opinions and understanding how they like to be recognized. Not everybody likes to be recognized in the same way. That's a simple step. What's the best recognition you've ever received? How do you like to be recognized? And make sure that's real clear. That's another one, kind of low-hanging fruit, that just gets ignored a lot in organizations when we assume that everybody responds the same way to different types of recognition. But to kind of get underneath what's motivating people to provide, you know, to provide the opinions they have and then how that relates to the ultimate outcomes the organization is trying to achieve.
Mohamed Younis 21:52
Jim, I wanted to ask you a question that also comes up a lot. And since you're here, I would be remiss not to ask you. Trust in the workplace or on any team is really critical. One of the most surprising findings is, through your work and many others at Gallup is, that having a best friend at work is actually a really critical part of how people assess the experience they have in their job. Can you close us out by just explaining what that means? Why having a best friend at work is even relevant and, as a manager or as a team leader, why, why I should not hear that and think, "Wow, that sounds like a waste of time!"
Jim Harter 22:29
Well, you know, one way to think about that -- and this came out of our research decades ago, where you know, we sat with highly productive teams, and some of them in the room would point across the table and say, "This is one of my best friends." So you start testing that out, and as you kind of, as we kind of just keep learning more and more about human nature, you can't really strip human nature out of people when they come to work. We don't suddenly become robots. And social wellbeing is a really important part, really foundational part of who we are as, as human beings. And that means that that component of us is important at work, where we spend a huge number of hours in our days -- in our, in our lives. And to, to just strip that part out of that much of our lives, in some ways seems ridiculous. But the research would also say that it's an important component.
Jim Harter 23:21
Now to think about that, that social component a little differently, certainly it can lead to higher levels of innovation, because people have informal conversations that they wouldn't have had otherwise in the workplace. They can, they can share something that they've been thinking about and not feel like that person is going to take their idea -- somebody who will actually support them. Or they might have something they need to get off their chest; that's part of who we are too -- we can reduce stress by just having candid conversations with our coworkers. But you might think about that social component in the context of, you know, in some cases, you might have a best friend at work, but you don't know what's expected of you; you don't have a manager who you really feel cares about you. That then can become a gripe session also. So I think it's important to think about the social component in the context of the rest of the elements that lead to high engagement: It's important, but it's not the end-all, be-all on its own, because certainly we'll bond together in negativity, just like we bond together in positivity. And the role of the manager is to bring that positivity so that those natural bonds that occur can be, can, can make the team even better than it would have been otherwise, where people know what their roles are; they get recognized; they feel like they're, they're cared about when they come to work.
Jim Harter 24:35
And when those kind of foundational pieces are in place, I think that the rest, that social part, makes a lot more sense to people because they can see that it, it's additive and it's just a part of us being who we are. I was working with an organization once, Mohamed, where I went in before I did the presentation, they said, "I just want to let you know our executives kind of frown on having really strong social bonds at work" -- and I think people can kind of list off what the reasons would be for that -- and I took a look at their data. They actually had higher-than-average percentages of best friends at work. And they tried to build a culture that sort of frowned on that, but it happened anyway. And my, my point there is that people will get their needs met through human nature, and you might as well leverage it, you know. You might as well, might as well support it and leverage it and utilize it to build a more productive, innovative team.
Mohamed Younis 25:26
On that profound note, Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist on workplace management and the author of the awesome and recent book, Wellbeing at Work. Jim, it's always great to have you here.
Jim Harter 25:36
Thanks for having me again, Mohamed. Great to be with you.
Mohamed Younis 25:39
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to news.gallup.com or follow us on twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.