The 4-day week put to the test - TU Ilmenau research project takes stock

The 4-day week can, if tailored specifically to a company, make the organization more flexible and at the same time strengthen the employees - this is the most important finding from the pilot test that has just been completed in two Thuringian companies. The accompanying scientific research was carried out by Technische Universität Ilmenau in the InnoFARM project, which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the REGION.innovativ measure with a good 1.5 million euros, of which a good one million euros went to TU Ilmenau.

I n the InnoFARM ("Innovative Models for Work in SMEs") joint project coordinated by TU Ilmenau, the Thuringian companies DEGUMA Schütz GmbH and LINDIG Fördertechnik GmbH tested different variants of the 4-day week over 12 and six months respectively. Even during the preparation of the tests, it became clear that, despite the different operating times depending on the company and function, it was basically possible to adapt the basic idea of the 4-day week to the respective operational conditions. The solutions developed were very different: in one company, an entire area, for example in the machine shop or workshop, was closed one day a week; another model provided for individual employees to choose their day off freely both in terms of the rhythm, every week or every second week, and in terms of the day of the week; in other areas, employees were divided into teams with different working days in order to be able to meet operational requirements: One team worked from Monday to Thursday, the other from Tuesday to Friday.

In both companies, employees were asked in a total of 164 interviews before, during and after the end of the test phase what expectations they had of the 4-day week, what changes they had experienced in their day-to-day work, how the day off had affected their well-being and private life, whether their expectations had been met and whether they would like to continue working in the 4-day week model. In addition, comprehensive changes in key figures such as customer satisfaction, adherence to deadlines, error rates and complaints, productivity, sick leave and the number of applications received were evaluated.

The aim of the accompanying research by the TU Ilmenau team was to investigate the requirements and effects of different models of a 4-day week, regardless of the specific individual case, in relation to individuals, teams and the company organization.

Results at the individual level

A key result of the employee interviews is that not everyone described an additional day off per week as beneficial and desirable. While some people felt more relaxed and more focused thanks to the longer free time, others experienced increased work pressure combined with the feeling of having to "earn" the day off, despite a positive attitude towards the 4-day week. Some even gave up the actual day off altogether and even worked overtime because they subjectively felt that they had not completed their work in the four days. This in turn led to even more stress for those affected.

The employees felt less stressed if their company provided for organizational slack. This technical term describes resources over and above the usual daily requirements in order to be able to react flexibly to unforeseen events, such as a breakdown at a customer’s premises. For example, employees with multiple qualifications who can be deployed as stand-ins in different areas of responsibility can cushion peaks in personnel requirements.

Results at team level and company organization level

At the team level, it became apparent that coordination between employees had to be better planned with an overall reduction in working hours. As a result of the necessary additional regulations, employees acted less on the basis of a momentary mood or on demand. Communication problems resulting from the fact that employees had their day off were eliminated, for example, by the fact that meetings were now held on fixed days of the week when all’employees were present. A side effect on an individual level was that employees worked in a more focused and goal-oriented manner on the days off.

Measured in terms of company key figures, the test of the 4-day week had no negative effects in either company during the observation period. Compared to the year before the test phase, customer satisfaction and productivity remained almost the same. In one company, the sickness rate fell significantly, which partially compensated for the reduction in individual working hours.

Conclusion from the practical test of the 4-day week

The success of a 4-day week is influenced to a large extent by the organizational framework conditions. In addition to operational requirements, employers must also take into account the obligations of their employees, such as childcare, whose time requirements cannot be reconciled with a rigid 4-day week and longer working days. Employees will also only really use the day off to relax if their individual financial situation allows it.

It is also necessary to examine the long-term impact of the chosen 4-day week model on the economic situation of the company and whether employees can be paid their full salary even with reduced working hours. If the positive effects observed in the pilot project, such as better recovery, cannot be realized in the long term, the 4-day week should be called into question and other options examined. The chosen working time model must suit the company and its employees.

While DEGUMA Schütz GmbH will permanently retain the 4-day week for all’employees throughout the company, LINDIG Fördertechnik GmbH is using the 4-day week as an option after the test phase and is now examining working time models in which employees can choose between time/holiday and money.

Prof. Norbert Bach
Head of Management/Organization Group
+49 3677 69-4605