A systems thinking approach to assessing the adoption and scalability
of a new way of working in the United States
March 30, 2021
“When the hours, the nature of the work done, the physical conditions under which it is done, and the method by which it is remunerated, are such as to cause great wear and tear of body or mind or both … then the labor has been extravagant from the point of view of society at large…In such a case a moderate diminution of the hours of labor would diminish the national dividend only temporarily: for as soon as the improved standard of life had had time to exert its full effect on the efficiency of the workers, their increased energy, intelligence and force of character would enable them to do as much as before in less time.”
– Alfred Marshall, Economist (Marshall, 1890)
For more than a century, economists have predicted that accelerating technological advances would enable progressive countries to dramatically scale back working hours. As early as the 1880s, Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Karl Marx, enthusiastically endorsed a three-hour work day, anticipating the transformational power of technology to expedite productivity (Frey, 2019). In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes famously forecasted three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour workweek, allowing necessary work to be “as widely shared as possible,” while still providing enough for each individual “to be contented” (Kallis et al., 2013). And in 1956, then President Richard Nixon suggested that “a four-day workweek and fuller family life for every American” would be likely in the “not too distant future” as a result of economic gains (Blair, 1956). Still, despite unimagined technological advances and economic growth, the five-day, 40-plus-hour workweek prevails in the United States and in many highly developed countries around the globe.
The stagnant structure of the working week is not coincidental. By applying a systems thinking lens, the complexity of the issue becomes clear, as does an understanding of how a culture’s philosophy of work is inextricably linked with its beliefs and values. This paper explores the push and pull factors influencing the adoption and scalability of the four-day workweek in the United States, drawing on research and pilot findings from pioneering businesses in the U.S. and abroad to examine potential benefits and sources of resistance to the model. The analysis of opposing factors will take a dual-focus, examining both the American cultural context and traditional mental models around work that might hinder adoption. Finally, it will examine possible leverage points for systems change. In an attempt to draw artificial boundaries around a complex issue, this analysis will focus on the application of the four-day workweek to the field of salaried “knowledge work,” while fully acknowledging that there is are 3 of salaried “knowledge work,” while fully acknowledging that there is are inherent socioeconomic disparities in this discussion, and that eventual solutions must be more inclusive so as not to perpetuate systemic inequities. It also retains focus on four-day workweek models that actively reduce hours (as opposed to four 10-hour days) and that do not cut workers’ salaries as a result of reduced working hours.
The Five-Day Workweek and American Philosophy of Work
At its essence, the way of work in the U.S and in many other countries has grown from and complemented the prevailing economic ethos of infinite growth. While workers’ rights have evolved significantly over the course of American history, the static nature of the workweek over the last century is conspicuous and puzzling when examined in the context of increasing wealth and dramatic developments in science and technology. Wealthy countries tend to work less as they become more productive, typically following a pattern in which industrialization will trigger an initial increase in working hours, followed by economic development, which then prompts a decrease. The U.S. (along with the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries) is an exception (Kallis et al., 2013), and while annual hours worked per employee declined by 40% in the Netherlands and Germany between 1950 and 2012, they declined only 10% overall in the U.S. (Thompson, 2019). Today, Americans work nearly as many hours as they did in the 1930s when the U.S. was seen as a global leader in reducing working hours (Kallis et al., 2013).
As illustrated in Appendix A (timeline), the U.S.’s leadership in this area was a product of multiple “rhythms of systemic change” (Leadbeater, et al., 2013). In this case, new ideas and coalitions for change met new technologies and industry leaders willing to initiate alternative models, which in turn catalyzed the development of new laws and regulations. This history affirms the need for a multifaceted approach to future systems change and the benefit of situating individual efforts within the context of a broader movement to not only shift policy and practice but belief systems as well.
Notably, the shift to a five-day workweek in the early 1900s was propelled, at least in part, by values that today deter a further reduction in working hours. An oft-cited trailblazer in the implementation of the five-day week, Henry Ford had consumerism in mind when initiating a reduction in hours while sustaining pay, suggesting that workers would require more leisure time if they were to purchase and use the cars he produced (Kallis et al., 2013). American culture has 4
continued to teach consumerism as a value, spurred by its fidelity to continuous economic growth. And yet, the devotion to GDP as a primary measure of economic health leaves extensive blind spots that heighten fragility in the social fabric of the country, its citizens’ mental health, the environment, and beyond. Today, it is consumerism and the learned behavior to value money over time that hinders momentum around reduced working hours (Whillans, 2019). Furthermore,
the model of shareholder primacy predominates, concentrating power among those who will make decisions on the basis of profit generation as opposed to worker wellbeing. Without significant bargaining power, employees are often left working longer or the same number of hours for lower pay (Spencer, 2019).
In the U.S, attitudes toward work are deeply enmeshed in both the American Dream, which promises upward mobility to those willing to work hard, and the Protestant roots of the country’s early colonizers. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber identifies a transition from “traditionalism,” which centers on the belief that one will work to earn enough money to live, to Calvinism, which emphasizes a view of work as a vocation or “calling.” This idea that one’s purpose or value should be found through work is still very much present in the 21st-century zeitgeist (Taggert, 2018). American “workaholism” can be linked to the common belief that one’s work is synonymous with one’s identity. This has also fueled the trend, particularly among the college-educated elite, of work as a status symbol, with some individuals touting 60- or 80-hour weeks as indicators of accomplishment or personal value (Thompson, 2019). These attitudes around work life in the U.S. serve as balancing feedback loops, helping to sustain and perpetuate the current workweek model.
The Case for Change
Numerous studies have documented the negative effects of this orientation toward work as an end in itself. The traditional 40-hour workweek was not designed with human wellness in mind (Kamerāde, et al., 2019) and coupled with the rise of round-the-clock communication mechanisms, the distinction between working and non-working hours has become increasingly blurred. Perceptions of “time affluence” are at an all-time low in the U.S.. In a recent Gallup survey of 2.5 million Americans, 80% of respondents reported not having the time to do what they wanted each day. This concept of “time poverty” has been linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress, rising healthcare costs due to low levels of exercise and poor health, as 5 well as billions of dollars worth of diminished productivity each year (Whillans, 2019). The consequences extend beyond human impacts to the broader environment too. A French study found that longer working hours correlate with more energy intensive consumption patterns, even when controlling for income, and the prospect of responding to increased productivity with
reduced work hours as opposed to increased production “would have major implications for carbon emissions and environmental sustainability” (Devetter & Rouseaau, 2011 and Coote et al, 2010 as cited in Gilmore, 2019).
Perhaps most significantly, there is demand for change. One study reports that three-quarters of workers would like a longer weekend (Maroney, 2018) and another that two-thirds of workers favor a compressed workweek (Chokshi, 2019). In surveying the future workforce, two-thirds of Gen Z respondents said that a four-day workweek would influence their choice of employer (Laker et al., 2019). Four-day workweek pilots are emerging across the globe, with some businesses now shifting from the pilot phase to implementing the policy permanently. Those who have tested the model range from financial planning firms to software companies to fast casual restaurant chain Shake Shack, Microsoft Japan, and consumer goods giant Unilever. Political leaders have begun voicing support for the concept; in 2020, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, endorsed employers implementing a four-day workweek to help stimulate domestic tourism in response to industry downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic (Badham, 2020). In February 2021, the Spanish government agreed to test a 32-hour workweek pilot without cutting workers’ pay in response to the pandemic. For some, the COVID-19 experience seems to have prompted a paradigm shift. The rapid, significant transition for many to working from home “opened people’s eyes to the fact that change can happen, and that it can happen very quickly, when we want it to,” said the 4-Day Week Campaign’s Joe Ryle. Whether or not this paradigm shift will carry enough momentum to trigger widespread change, especially when research has shown that many employees have been putting in more hours while working from home, is yet to be seen (McKeever, 2021).
A New Relationship With Work: Benefits of Reduced Work Hours
Figure 1 illustrates the interconnected nature of the benefits associated with a reduction in work hours, yielding positive impacts in the areas of environment, economy and business, human well-being, and culture and society.
The most powerful business finding emerging from four-day workweek pilots centers on productivity levels. Microsoft Japan boasted a 40% increase in productivity (measured in sales per employee) in their 2019 pilot, and New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian, a trust management company, reported productivity gains of 20% (Chappell, 2019). Among businesses that have adopted a four-day week, almost two-thirds report increased productivity (Nicola, 2021).
Further substantial benefits come in the areas of improved physical and mental health, increased gender equity, and positive environmental impacts. First, reduced work hours leave more time for employees to care for themselves and their families. In an external evaluation of Perpetual Guardian’s pilot, employees reported lower job stress and burnout, as well as record-high levels of perceived work-life balance (Perpetual Guardian et al., 2019). Women, whose unpaid labor amounts to $1.5 trillion annually in the United States, would especially benefit from the four-day week (Wezerek et al., 2020). These added demands, which force many women out of full-time employment, could be made more manageable or, better yet, potentially more evenly distributed among men as a result of reduced work hours. When France adopted a 35-hour workweek, men increased contributions to household work and spent more time with their children (De Spiegelaere & Piasna, 2017, as cited in Gilmore, 2019). While such a shift will not fundamentally equalize distributions of labor, it is a step in the right direction. And finally, there is growing evidence that a reduced workweek would yield environmental benefits. Microsoft documented significant cuts to resource use in their 2019 pilot, including a 59% decrease in pages printed and 23% decline in energy consumption (Eadicicco, 2019). Research shows that cutting work hours by 10% would reduce humanity’s carbon footprint by 14.6%, suggesting that reducing the workweek by a full day could result in a carbon footprint reduction of nearly 30% (Knight et al., 2012).
Feedback Loops and Resistance to Change
“Whenever there is resistance to change, you can count on there being one or more hidden balancing processes. It arises from threats to traditional norms and ways of doing things. Often these norms are woven into the fabric of established power relationships… Rather than pushing harder to overcome resistance to change, artful leaders discern the source of the resistance. They focus directly on the implicit norms and power relationships within which the norms are embedded.”
– Peter Senge (Senge, 1990)
While attitudes towards work are evolving, any broad-based shift to reduce working hours would signify a truly radical change in the dominant American work culture and would certainly encounter resistance. One way to assess this resistance is by investigating it at both the societal (business and economic context) and individual (mental model) levels.
Beginning more broadly with American business culture and economics requires attending to the drivers of shareholder capitalism and the growth imperative. Both drivers contribute to a workplace ecosystem that minimizes the rights and interests of workers, customers, the community, and the environment, while prioritizing benefit to shareholders and investors. As illustrated in Figure 2, these mutually reinforcing drivers (R1) place sustained pressure on businesses to continuously grow and generate strong returns. Assuming that a viable business model is in place, these pressures require increased productivity and heightened production to meet and drive consumer demand, which impels further growth. Together, this creates a reinforcing feedback cycle of growth that represents one half of a “Limits to Success” archetype where productivity in the workplace is centered as the primary means of achieving growth (R3). A balancing loop (B1), hinging on factors limiting productivity (e.g., mental health, exhaustion, burnout, morale, etc.) curtails continuous gains in productivity.
When looking at limits to productivity as a problem symptom, another archetype, “Shifting the Burden,” emerges. In this case, the symptomatic solution or short-term fix of “workplace wellness and perks” (B3) is emblematic of a broad array of approaches taken to improve wellness within the context of the workplace and working hours. While often effective in the short term and well-intentioned in their attempt to broaden the workplace’s value as a source of well-being, such approaches create a side effect of further centering the workplace in workers’ lives (R6). The Silicon Valley model of office perks (e.g., in-office games, gourmet cafeterias, laundry, gyms, etc.) is a prime example of this. In the words of Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, “Initially, this was all presented as paradise for a worker. And then, slowly, this alternative narrative began to take hold…this is actually a quite insidious kind of trap…It’s a way of making it so people don’t go home easily at night. It’s a way of blurring the lines between what is fun and social and community, which we normally think of as not happening in your office, and what is your office. And it’s a way of getting people to put in 10, 12-hour days” (Klein, 2021). One can expect that further centralization of the workplace might actually make it more challenging to imagine, let alone implement, the more fundamental solution (B4) of actually reducing working hours to relieve workers.
Traditional mental models suggest that increased demands on productivity require additional work hours. This mental model is supported by the American cultural context (i.e., American Dream ethos, the historical significance of the Calvinist work ethic, “workaholism” as a status symbol, beliefs about productivity, etc.). While the cultural context reinforces hours spent at work, it is also part of a balancing feedback loop (B2) that is a source of resistance to the fundamental solution of reducing working hours described above.
An additional balancing feedback loop stems from commonly held attitudes among organizational leaders that lean toward distrust of employees and prefer high levels of control (B5). Among companies that have piloted the four-day workweek, an apparent criterion for success is the vision of and support from leadership. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has attributed employers’ reluctance to pursue the four-day workweek to a lack of interest, faith in employees, and understanding of the benefits of such a change (Chokshi, 2019). The increasing volume of positive pilot program outcomes will likely serve to assuage some reluctance but, especially for early adopters, the shift to a four-day week will require a leap of faith and openness to experimentation. Arguably, a leader’s willingness to pilot a reduced-hour workweek while maintaining pay requires a rejection of the traditional mental model that associates visibility and time in the office with a worker’s value and productivity. This mental model has been tested with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many companies out of their offices and into a work-from-home model, though many leaders are still struggling to create cultures of trust in remote environments (Parker et al., 2020). An external evaluator of Perpetual Guardian’s four-day workweek pilot emphasized that “Managers need to understand that trust is central to…the four-day week” (Perpetual Guardian et al., 2021). Not only does the shift to reduced hours require trust, it requires a willingness to relinquish full control, veer from the status quo, and pilot an approach that runs counter to traditional business practices. It is the work of a learning organization.
Finding Leverage: Opportunities to Scale the Four-Day Workweek
“We have created the structures that currently dominate by virtue of how we have operated in the past, and they can change if we see them and start to operate differently.”
– Peter Senge (Senge, 1990)
Donella Meadows describes leverage points as “not intuitive.” “Or if they are,” she says, “we intuitively use them backward, systematically worsening whatever problems we are trying to solve” (Meadows, 1999). Increasing productivity by reducing working hours is counterintuitive; and yet, countless studies have demonstrated that scaling hours back actually propels workplaces forward, both in terms of productivity measures and ancillary individual, societal, and environmental benefits.
As was seen in the shift to a five-day workweek a century ago, change will likely not come all at once, but through normalizing the concept of reduced working hours over time. Most likely, prior to new laws and regulation, any substantial movement will require leadership from creative, open-minded individuals and organizations, the emergence of strong coalitions for change, and, at least in the U.S., a significant paradigm shift in how the country relates to work.
Undoubtedly, the U.S. will continue to see an increasing number of firms piloting an abbreviated workweek, some interested in moving toward a triple bottom line framework (i.e., people, planet, profit) while others purely seek to become more competitive or to realize the anticipated productivity gains. These pilots and their outcomes will likely play a key role in building public and political support for change. As such, organizations should seek out partnerships with external evaluators to produce research reports and make recommendations. Indeed, in large part, current enthusiasm for the model has evolved in response to the impressive qualitative and quantitative data released by New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian with their academic partners, the University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology.
When establishing pilots, leaders cannot underestimate the pivotal role they play as models for change. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (1990) highlights the example of Intel’s Dave Marsing, who committed to stop working so intensely after a heart attack. Marsing said, “It created space for others to choose likewise, and the result was we started working together differently, achieving what we never could have through just long hours and superhuman effort” (p. 281). In one study, nearly half of workers surveyed worried that their colleagues would perceive them as lazy if they spent less time at work, reinforcing the need for leaders to create and model new norms of working (Laker, 2019).
Leaders can increase the likelihood that a four-day workweek initiative will be successful by demonstrating trust in employees and being willing to cede some control in the process. A common reprise from organizations that have effectively implemented the model is to let employees work out the details. Perpetual Guardian asked employees to propose their own productivity measures, including how they and their teams would increase productivity, and to coordinate time off within their teams (Perpetual Guardian, 2019). Awin, a Berlin-based tech firm, saw 80 employees volunteer for task forces to ensure that their switch to a four-day workweek went as smoothly as possible (Nicola, 2021). Such engagement will be particularly important as pilots move into new sectors (e.g., education, healthcare, food service, etc.); those who are closest to the work and potential challenges are often closest to the solutions.
In the U.S., progress towards a four-day workweek will likely continue at a slow pace until two critical paradigm shifts are realized, at least by a significant portion of business leaders. The first is a shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism. While shareholder primacy has maintained a profit-at-all-costs focus and minimized collective bargaining power, a shift toward stakeholder capitalism would elevate employee well-being and other issues, such as environmental footprint, community building, and fair business practices, that would support the case for a shorter workweek. Second, and perhaps less tangible, is a shift in how American culture, its institutions, and the individuals within them, view and value work. As discussed earlier, this is a complex and personal issue; it requires an ongoing dialogue and dissection of how and where individuals derive self-worth or worthiness, what messages American educational, media, and government systems send about human value, and how the culture can more fully recognize the multiple roles that its people inhabit on a daily basis. Together, these and other actions may encourage the scaling of the four-day workweek model.
An overarching shift to a four-day workweek in the United States will be no simple feat, but it is certainly achievable in the near term. There is inherent complexity when considering any type of change in organizations, which themselves are complex adaptive systems. Though interestingly, one could argue that the complexity in this case is not so much in implementing the solution but in reconciling the solution with existing mental models and beliefs. To clarify, organizations will benefit from implementing a reduced workweek in the simplest means possible; for many, this will begin with a pilot, with adjustments made as needed. Leaders should not overthink implementation and should instead engage employees to design a feasible approach and workshop potential challenges. The true complexity that may deter broad adoption can be found in the balancing and reinforcing feedback loops that represent deep-rooted and prevailing mental models.
The reinforcing cycle of productivity demands and business growth triggered by shareholder primacy and the growth imperative drive interest in ever-increasing work hours while the American cultural context and its values reaffirm the prioritization of work. This cultural context and corresponding belief system also serves as a balancing feedback loop, creating a narrative that working less is somehow un-American or lazy. Additional balancing loops preventing system-level change come in the form of leadership orientations that are reliant on high control and distrust of employees, and an overreliance on symptomatic solutions that yield problematic side effects.
In Shell’s now-famous study of corporate longevity, the authors concluded that enduring companies tend to see themselves as human communities rather than financial institutions. They “had a sense of who they were that transcended what they did, giving them capabilities to evolve and adapt.” (Senge, 1990). It is possible to interrupt these feedback loops, and many are already doing so. If more U.S. companies begin to see themselves as human communities that can achieve high levels of productivity while creating conditions for their employees to thrive outside of the office, the four-day workweek has a bright future.
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