There was a recent article in the BBC news claiming that the four-day work week experiment in Iceland was an 'overwhelming success'. The idea of less work and more personal time is always going to be attractive, particularly if you're interested in the financial independence and retire early movement (FIRE), and especially if you're still getting paid the same amount of money. But it got me thinking - is the four-day work week better than a permanent work-from-home arrangement?
Gaining back some of your personal time is always a good thing - and well in line with the purpose of financial independence - but what you're able to do with that time will define how good. Never needing to commute and having the flexibility to tend to your kids or get some personal things done in-between meetings is always handy, but so does having a three day weekend every weekend - you've always said you needed that extra day. Ultimately there's no clear winner between a four-day work week or a permanent work-from-home arrangement as it's all down to your personal circumstances. But there is one option they do beat - the five-day work week where you have to go to the office.
Let's set the scene
There's only going to be one "obvious winner" to this question - a four-day work week that's completely flexible based on the employee's personal schedule.
But that isn't what's on offer - not from this article at least - so let's set the scene a little better.
Imagine you go into your office next Monday and your boss pulls you aside to tell you that you get a choice between working four days a week from the office or sticking to the five-day work week but you can work from home permanently.
With the four-day work week everything runs the same as before except you get Fridays off (or Monday if that sounds better to you - adjust the following conditions accordingly). You still need to go into the office and clock in during business hours on the work days but when you clock out on Thursday evening you don't need to care about anything until Monday. You can still do the occasional day where you work-from-home for personal reasons, i.e. waiting for the plumber, but you can't make it a regular thing.
With permanent work-from-home you still need to be available during business hours from Monday through to Friday for ad-hoc meetings, collaboration, communication with the team and things along those lines - and you also have one regular scheduled check in with your direct manager each week. But besides that, nobody is going to be monitoring that you're sat at your desk from 9AM until 5PM.
In both cases you will get paid the same, and the expectations on the amount of work you should get done and to what standard will not change from the normal five-day office work week.
Which would you choose?
Why was the four-day work week an overwhelming success?
Based on the BBC's article the experiment in Iceland ran for a few years from 2015 through to 2019 on about 1% of the entire population which included preschools, offices, social services and hospitals.
For the majority of workplaces, productivity remained the same or improved despite many of the workers regaining a number of hours back for their personal lives, with the number of hours worked in a week being reported at around 35 or 36 (8 to 9 hours a day).
From the worker's perspective many reported feeling less stressed and less burned out, with an improvement in work-life balance overall.
Since both the workplace and the worker seems to have gained something - or at least didn't lose anything - the arrangement of a four-day work week was therefore declared successful.
While Iceland's experiment is the world's largest trial to date, there are other successful examples of shorter work weeks - in varying forms - that can be drawn from.
In Sweden between 2015 and 2017 they experimented with 6-hour shifts (five day weeks) for nurses which resulted in staff having more energy, being more productive, and being more happy.
Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day work week in 2019 and also cut the time spent within meetings by almost half, while keeping pay at the same level. Though the experiment only covered a short amount of time, the results were a reduction in electricity costs and an increase in sales when compared to the previous year's same period.
And a report published in 2019 by Henley Business School, a part of the University of Reading, stated that research found that two-thirds of UK businesses operating on a four-day work week saw improvements in staff productivity while also potentially saving them money due to being more cost-effective thanks to the benefits of happier employees.
How I'm making permanent working-from-home a success for myself
A few articles ago I wrote about why I turned down a £76k job offer after calculating the real value of my current job. You can read the article for the in-depth details but much of my reasoning was based on the value of time that I am able to save by being completely remote and working from home.
However, towards the start of my permanent work-from-home arrangement things were not as clear or as rosy. I found it difficult to adjust my behaviours which led to poor balancing and an inability to separate personal life and work.
The pendulum would swing too far on either side where I would be easily distracted and not being productive - leading to dissatisfaction and a sense of under-achievement - or I would become really involved and work constantly, with little to no time for anything else. Naturally this led to stress and burnout, not to mention friction in my relationship.
It took a bit of time and adjustment but thankfully I eventually found a way to achieve that balance, and that has resulted in much higher levels of fulfilment in all aspects of my life.
The keys to finding this balance was having the discipline to draw clear lines between work and personal life, and respecting them without exception.
I no longer eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner at my computer desk, opting to disconnect and sit down at my dining table instead - a simple but often overlooked way to appreciate the present moment.
When I start work I shut off any and all distractions; no music, no videos, and no messaging. I'm absolutely focused on doing my work in that time slot and any casual conversations happening in my phone can wait until I take a break.
I shift my working schedule to adapt to any meetings or calls I need to have with teams based in the UK or the US - while I myself live in Hong Kong.
This means I no longer work a set schedule of 9AM to 5PM. In fact, I don't even think of my work in terms of time input anymore. Everything is now outcome focused. Each day I decide and set the items I want to get done and as long as I get through them be it in 4 hours, 8, or 12, I will end my work day knowing I was productive.
This makes it easier for me to find time and space in my life to do other smaller items that are often ignored due to being in the office - shopping for groceries, cooking, cleaning, and all the miscellaneous things that contribute to our overall wellbeing and work-life balance.
And when the weekend rolls around I am able to fully wind down and relax, knowing that I haven't been wasting any of my time.
Unique Perks and Benefits for each
If you have shorter working hours, or increased flexibility and control on how you spend your time, there are going to be some clear benefits that you'll enjoy regardless of which option you choose.
Both will - in general - lead to more personal time for relaxation, better job satisfaction, less stress in general, more fulfilment, and better work-life balance provided you're wielding your extra time sensibly.
But don't forget we're being asked to choose between two good options - so we want to know what are the unique perks and benefits offered by each.
I'm sure the more time spent thinking on these, the more there will be to discover - but to avoid things dragging on I only included the ones that came naturally and easily to me while writing this article.
Perks unique to a four-day work week
Have you ever felt that the Friday evening after work is somewhat more relaxing than Saturday or Sunday evening?
While you can make arrangements with work-from-home to have a Friday that has less work it still isn't going to be the same as a proper three-day weekend where you know that nobody is going to be bothering you about work for a good couple of days.
No end-of-the-week check in call with the manager and no chance of a random message coming in during the late afternoon with a "quick question".
The longer stretch of time off may also help with family time in some ways that work-from-home cannot.
When you have a three day weekend you have more focused time to do things together, maybe even take a short break away from home, without it all feeling like a rush where most of the time was spent just travelling to your getaway destination.
Switching over to the days where you head into the office.
When you do go in you get an element of social interaction with people outside of your family that wouldn't be available if you were always working from home. Greeting the barista in the morning, the chit-chat with your colleagues over lunch, or the conversations with the landlady at your regular pub.
Author's note: The Italian guy who makes sandwiches in the deli by the office always taps the table after serving me and says "good to see you again" - it's awesome.
These small interactions can help stave off the feelings of being isolated in life.
And sometimes strong relationships can be built in the office place. The person I've asked to be my best man at my wedding is a guy I met at work who had similar morals, work ethic, and interests as myself.
Finally, if one of these options were to become mandated by the government, my impression is that the four-day work week would be the better choice.
It's easy for someone like me to harp on about the greatness of working from home, but what about the people who need to be physically present at their workplace to do their job?
Teachers, firefighters, doctors, cleaners, staff at the grocery store that I have the convenience to visit, or at the bank.
If we're aiming for a fairer society where everyone across the board can benefit from better work-life balance then the four-day work week would be the choice to go for - until the day where robots completely take over all our jobs.
Perks unique to permanent work-from-home
Someone who has to head into the office will still need to make the morning commute, be at their desk throughout their work day, and arrive home in the evening after another commute in traffic and congestion.
You get to avoid all of this if you permanently work-from home.
You get more sleep, more time back to yourself rather than commuting, and more control over your time throughout the day. If you need to pick your kids up from school there's no longer the quarrel with your partner on who should be rushing from their office - instead you could both go together and pick the work back up after arriving home.
Your kids' school schedule becomes a source of quality family time instead of contention.
If you never need to be in the office then in reality you could actually work from anywhere, not just from home. This is fantastic if the novelty of your home office starts to wear off.
Head outside into your garden if it's sunny, or over to the local coffee shop, or to a co-working space with a good internet connection - provided your company's IT security policy permits this.
Maybe you could make the journey over to your parents' house and visit for the week. Work during the day then spend some quality time with them in the evenings without losing any days of annual leave.
Take it a step further - work from the hotel room during your office hours then visit the sights of Rome, Bogotá, or Bali once you're done for the day. Just imagine the coffee.
Or just move to a cheaper location to live and commute into the Big Smoke - assuming that's where you're working - on the rare occasion. Cardiff Central to London Paddington is only a two hour train ride which isn't all that bad if you only need to go in once a month.
Imagine the money you'll save on living costs.
Authors note: Finally some words more relatable to traditional financial independence! But then again, if improved control over your time and energy isn't on your mind then what exactly is your meaning of independence?
Making a choice
So now you've heard a couple of perks to each option it's time to make a choice.
The thing is, there's no right answer and no one-size-fits-all. What makes sense for you today may change in the future due to evolving circumstances in your life.
Since the choice is going to be down to each individual's own situation, I've got a couple of scenarios to illustrate how one choice may come out slightly ahead of the other.
The first one is based on my own life.
I'm involved in a number of things besides my job - I write this blog, I'm working on my own start-up with a friend, and needless to say I'm working on financial independence.
Having the flexibility and the control over my time is key for me to be able to manage all of my projects, and all of the time saved from not needing to commute basically adds about a day of productivity each week back into my schedule. Additionally, the lack of lunching or drinking after work with colleagues does certainly help the wallet.
I have a friend back in the UK who's a good example where the four-day work week might make more sense.
He represents the interest of businesses to policymakers at the government level which means the nature of his job involves a lot of interaction with other people. Sure, such conversations and meetings could take place online but they're going to be far more genuine and engaging when done in person. Plus, much of his work schedule would likely be filled with such meetings meaning a work-from-home arrangement wouldn't have much flexibility anyways.
As such, he may find it more favourable to fit all of the work into four days and then have a longer stretch of time off where he could kick back and relax with his family.
Obviously, you could take the above two scenarios and easily flip them around.
For example, someone who has a lot of different projects going on may prefer a four-day week because it helps them draw the lines between which project they're working on and when. During the four days they might work on their regular job, and then focus on their personal projects during the three days they have "off".
Ultimately this means that the choice is going to come down to the finer points that are really personal to you and your wants in life.
It's not the easiest decision but at least you can take a bit of solace from the fact that you're actually trying to pick the "greater of two goods".
How strange is it that we make excuses to ourselves, our spouse, our kids, or our aging parents saying that the project at work is really important, and even though we've spent the past couple of weeks not engaging with them properly they're still going to have to wait a bit longer before they'll really get to spend time with you.
The never-ending grind of the corporate world has caused it to become "normal" to place our priorities in favour of the company we work for - which unfortunately means neglecting the people who we truly owe our dedication to.
Thankfully, many people have been able to see things a bit more clearly over the past 18 months - albeit under the strangest of circumstances.
Though less time has probably been spent working, I'd wager that any drop in productivity doesn't correlate; but the fall in feelings of burnout would.
But with the world starting to find ways to recover and move out of "pandemic mode" we're now seeing companies requesting employees to start heading back into the workplace.
This is to be expected but it also puts your newfound work life balance under threat.
Start speaking up - to your colleagues, to your managers, to your network.
Financial independence has always been about gaining more control of your time so that you can spend more of it on life rather than in work. The money just happens to be the means to achieve it - but not always.
Four-day work week, permanent work-from-home, or some other arrangement that gives you more personal time.
Don't wait to be asked the question, bring it up instead!