How to make a 4-day workweek really work

This story originally appeared in Fast Company by Dr. Laura Hamill.

Margarita Mondays, nap pods, and other surface perks don’t encourage the type of work environment needed to make a shorter week really productive.

Encouraging greater employee well-being continues to be a difficult path for employers to navigate. Many companies chase lightning in a bottle by continuing to offer catchy perks such as Margarita Mondays, on-site yoga classes, or, my personal favorite, nap pods. Most recently, Microsoft did an experiment in its Japan office with a four-day workweek to improve work-life balance for its employees.

This is an admirable step signaling that some employers are acknowledging the need for well-being. However, in order to make these efforts successful long-term, employers need to look beyond perks to create a lasting impact on the lives of employees and drive better business results.

Let's get real

We’ve built our assumptions of work on very outdated models. Our people practices have not kept up with the changing demands from the work itself or our workers. Work now requires more innovation, flexibility, and creativity. Based on the current state of the American workplace, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on: The workplace can be better.

We’re starting to see employers across the globe question the status quo and open their minds to the idea that there could be a better way. Putting employees first could benefit everyone. Microsoft isn’t the only one experimenting. Chipotle expanded its mental health benefits, and European stock traders called for shorter trading hours—a big shift for the financial industry, which is known for having challenging demands and hours.

These valiant attempts to address the rising issues employees and employers face, such as burnout and turnover, are significant. They also point to a bigger issue. Companies need to better equip their employees with the tools and support they need to retain talent and ultimately create a great employee experience.

Why surface-level perks often fail

In order to compete in the modern workplace, organizations need to demonstrate to their workers that they not only support them in their work tasks but that they also genuinely care about them as people. Research by Limeade Institute found that when employees perceive support from their organizations, they are more committed to the organization and have higher levels of engagement, performance, and well-being.

Research shows that when employees feel cared for:

  • 60% plan to stay at their company for three or more years (as opposed to only 7% of those who don’t feel cared for)
  • 95% say they feel included in their organization (compared to 14% of those who don’t feel cared for)
  • 91% say they’re likely to recommend their organization as a great place to work (compared to 9% of those who don’t feel cared for)

In order for tactics such as shorter workweeks to be successful, employers first need to ensure employees are cared for. Here are three ways to do it.

Connect company and employee purpose

Employees want to contribute to a higher cause—not just churn out daily tasks and assignments to receive a paycheck. According to Mercer’s 2018 Talent Trends Study, thriving employees are three times more likely to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose.

Company leaders can start by sharing their vision with all employees and providing updates as the vision evolves or grows. Additionally, weave company values into daily work tasks to show that they’re more than words on a wall and that as a company, you truly stand by your values.

Open lines of communication

If employees don’t have the information and tools they need, productivity and morale suffer. As humans, we need communication and connection in order to survive. That’s no different in the workplace. Open the lines of communication between employees, managers, and leaders to foster an employee experience that connects dispersed workforces and streamlines communication.

Check in with employees on how a four-day workweek is going. Ask them what the experience is like, and figure out what is working and what is not.

Put employees' needs first

What’s good for employees is good for business. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking, “How are you doing?” Keeping up with expectations and the changing labor market can be tough, but the needs of your employees should always come first.

Organizational support and care for employees directly impacts well-being. And when organizations aren’t supportive, employees aren’t as likely to achieve well-being on their own. Start by focusing on a few commitments to employees that you know you can achieve:

  • Create well-being champion support networks and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to foster an inclusive workplace that aligns with your company’s mission.
  • Daycare often requires a five-day-week commitment. In order to maximize the success of a four-day workweek, foster relationships with daycare centers to ensure working parents can benefit from the change in schedule.
  • Provide on-site resources for well-being that are more than a snack room. Think mothers’ rooms for nursing moms, volunteer days, or areas that offer natural light.
  • Encourage managers and leaders to be well-being role models, encouraging employees to get involved, speak up, and support others.

A four-day workweek may boost productivity and grab the attention of candidates looking for work-life balance, but organizational care supports long-term growth and success and will ultimately be the reason your employees stay. From a winning culture to finding purpose to organizational support, focus on what employees really need—care.

Laura Hamill, PhD, is Limeade‘s chief people officer and chief science officer.