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The 4-day week: Utopian idea or revolutionary work organisation?

Increasingly, experiments to shift to a four-day week are carried out throughout the world, including in France. This new organisation is complex, it takes different forms and also raises many questions. Read on for an overview of the subject.

No doubt the 4-day week has been one of the most discussed HR topics in the business world for almost thirty years. For a long time, this subject polarised both the reticence of some and the hopes of others, thus creating a great deal of confusion about its implementation. However, since the pandemic crisis, all around the world, professionals are trying to redefine the conception of work in companies by experimenting or standardising new organisational approaches. Remote working, Flex Office, 5-hour day, flexible working hours, unlimited leave concept, etc.

Thanks to this beneficial excitement, the 4-day week quickly came back on everyone’s lips. Indeed, it is probably the organisational mode that is most likely to become widespread in the future. In this article, we will try to better understand this vast subject which is more difficult to implement than to explain.

The 4-day week, how does it work?

On paper, it’s not rocket science. The 4-day week is an organizational mode in companies that consists in working 4 days instead of 5 without loss of salary. In this way, employees can benefit from 3 days off per week and, thus, find a better balance between personal and professional life.

For companies, this reorganisation is expected to have a beneficial effect on productivity, quality of life at work and employee involvement, while also having a positive impact on the environment, since energy consumption is logically reduced. These benefits will be further investigated in our next article on the subject.

Countries experimenting with the 4-day week

A highly political issue, the 4-day week is being experimented by many governments around the world to measure its positive effects and constraints.

Iceland, the pathfinder

Between 2015 and 2019, the Icelandic government launched a pilot project to introduce the 4-day week for more than 2,500 people. The purpose is to analyse this new organisational mode through the lens of several sectors: employees in day-care centres, municipal civil servants, office workers in the private sector, etc.

In 2021, the Iceland’s journey to a shorter working week report confirmed that this project is a success, as stress has been reduced and the work-life balance has been greatly improved. As a result, about 90% of the country’s working population now enjoys a 4-day week.

United Kingdom, a successful 6-month test

Carried out between June and December 2022 with 70 volunteer companies and more than 3,000 employees, this test of the 4-day week, with a reduction in working time, was a great success on the other side of the Channel.

Analysed by the University of Cambridge and Boston College, the results showed that the companies’ revenues increased by 35% compared to the previous year at the same period, and that there was a significant drop in the rate of absenteeism. As a result, 9 out of 10 companies decided to continue with the initiative for the year 2023.

Japan, companies set an example to the government

Although the Japanese government encourages the 4-day week, it has never legislated or organised an experiment. In 2019, Microsoft’s Japanese branch took the lead by offering its 2,300 employees a flexible 4-day organisation to reduce overtime in particular.

The results speak for themselves: Microsoft reports that its employees are more fulfilled and are therefore around 40% more productive. Since 2022, many large groups such as Panasonic, Hitachi and Uniqlo have been following Microsoft’s lead.

Belgium, upon employee request

Since September 2022, the government has allowed all employees in the public and private sectors to apply for flexible working hours. It is then up to the employer to decide. Should they refuse, companies will have to justify their choices by giving valid reasons relating to the organisation and operation of the company.

This reorganisation does not lead to a loss of salary and has no impact on employees’ pension. However, this measure does not reduce working time, but rather reorganises it. In other words, employees will have to work four days instead of five and extend their working hours.

The new law also allows for a variable working week. In this case, it is possible to work more in one week and less in the next. According to the Belgian government, this flexibility is intended to meet the specific needs of single-parent families or families with alternating custody.

The 4-day week: one work pattern, several approaches

Spain, Portugal, New Zealand… The list of countries experimenting with the 4-day week is still long. From these examples, it is interesting to note several points.

First of all, the 4-day week cannot be implemented in the same way everywhere. Some countries, such as England, favour a reduction in working time.

  • In this case, the 4-day week is based on the assumption that an employee with more rest is a more productive employee on workdays.
  • In Belgium, the 4-day week is more akin to work intensification. In other words, employees have to perform all their tasks in a shorter time, lengthening their days.
  • Secondly, we notice that in Japan the initiative comes from the companies, while in Iceland it comes from the government.

Of course, each country has different characteristics in terms of the business world and work culture. It is easier for a government to intervene with a working population of 222,000, as in Iceland, than with a population of 67 million, as in Japan.

Finally, regardless of choosing to intensify or reduce working time, the 4-day week cannot be applied to all sectors and all jobs in the same way.

While for some occupations, the working time is easy to organise, for others it raises many questions.

  • Will a sales representative end up working the fifth day to achieve his objectives?
  • Is it really advisable to extend the daily working hours for jobs that are very arduous?
  • Is it possible for a company to reconcile a 4-day week with service continuity?

All these questions prove that the 4-day week is an organisation that requires in-depth reflection for each company and a sometimes almost tailor-made implementation.

In France, employees have been asking for it since the pandemic crisis

Since the Robien law on the adaptation of working time in 1997, the subject of the 4-day week in France has been a recurring subject. In other words, it is regularly debated without the State legislating to any great extent. In concrete terms, it is possible for every company in France to switch to a 4-day week as long as it meets some requirements of the Labour Code. For example:

  • Unless there is a derogation, Sunday is a day of rest.
  • The daily working time may not exceed 10 hours.
  • Or the minimum time off between 2 working weeks for an employee is 35 hours.

In short, the French State does not restrict companies: as a result, the implementation of the 4-day week is entirely possible. Many companies have already been applying it for several years, for example LDLC, Welcome to the Jungle, Accenture, Elmy or Yprema.

The pandemic crisis, a beneficial accelerator?

According to various surveys, French employees are rather in favour of the 4-day week. For example, according to a survey by ADP in May 2022, 64% of French employees would like to have the option of condensing their working hours into a 4-day week. Another study by the recruitment firm Robert Half indicates that 35% of company managers plan to implement it by 2024.

These are optimistic figures that would finally create a real momentum around this work organisation. In reality, the 4-day week has so far only been adopted by 5% of companies, all sectors considered.

The pandemic crisis has obviously played a role in this awareness. As a result, French employees are looking for a different approach to work and a better balance between personal and professional life. Despite these new expectations, France has chosen not to impose any constraints on companies. This is rather a positive thing, as Thomas Rechter, Work Environment Director at SharingCloud, explains in a recent article for the public media France Info.

The 4-day week is a complex issue that each company must address by conducting a thorough analysis to ensure that its implementation is fully positive for everyone.

At SharingCloud, the 4-day week is a subject that we are keen on. As we announced in a previous article, our company will inaugurate this new form of work organisation from April 2023.

To find out more about the key stages of our 4-day week project, click here!

13 Apr 2023 5



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