Thoughts on a 4-day workweek experiment

Magyar Telekom's Budapest Headquarters

The end of Magyar Telekom's 4-day workweek experiment made headlines in the Hungarian press and some local leadership circles. However, I haven't seen many international mentions despite the attention this topic was getting a year or so ago. Summarizing their trial for an English-speaking audience gave me a good opportunity to think about the 4-day workweek concept.

Magyar Telekom, the Hungarian subsidiary of the international telecommunications behemoth Deutsche Telekom, has a 5000-strong staff, making it one of Hungary’s largest employers. Their experiment, where participants had to do the same work for the same salary in four 8-hour days instead of five, started back in June 2022 with 152 participants. It seemed an overwhelming success initially. After 3 months, during a press event, they reported equal or better performance metrics (even a 10% increase in customer support teams). 90% of participants wanted to keep working in this setup. Telekom extended the experiment to 300 people, including more departments, starting November 2022.

Then, a long period of silence, and in February 2024, they announced the conclusion of the experiment: the 4-day workweek caused challenges that were impossible to resolve, and everyone went back to the previous five-days-a-week schedule. The challenges included performance and efficiency issues, particularly in roles involving pre-scheduled shifts; struggles in work-life balance, as people couldn't participate in family duties during longer work days; and difficulties synchronizing teams with different days off. The array of different work types and personal circumstances also contributed to the termination of the 4-day workweek experiment.

If you want details, this great coverage from Telex has quotes from the HR leader and some participants, and the Google Translation is good enough to follow.

Comments on Magyar Telekom’s 4-day workweek experiment

Their goal was very ambitious (naive?), expecting the same results, for the same salary, but done in 80% of the time. What this implied is that either people can perform 20% better if they have a 3-day weekend, or that there’s room for a 20% optimization in their processes. It’s hard to imagine that all their previous attempts to ensure efficiency were leaving so much left to improve. And indeed, the second, extended round was 9 hours per 4 workdays, so -10% compared to the traditional 5-days per week setup. In retrospect, this probably forecasted the failure: people seemed to respond to the need to complete the same work in a shorter time by overworking during those days to catch up.

I haven't found anything on other changes they made within their processes to ensure they are better suited for this way of working. Earlier reports mentioned that "customers were understanding", and "difficulties synchronizing teams with varied days off", making me think that they kept the processes that worked well when everyone was available simultaneously, without adapting them to this new setup. Experimenting with process changes, and transitioning to more asynchronous work could have increased the chances of success. (That being said, changing too many things during an experiment decreases the value of the results.)

While the initial goals of the experiment were stated to be about better efficiency and work-life balance, we can’t ignore the zeitgeist of early 2022: high competition for quality talent, increasing salaries, and an increasing part of the potential workforce leaving the country. What mattered then was to find ways to attract (and keep) high-performing employees. In this environment, being open to new ideas like a 4-day workweek was helping employer branding, making Magyar Telekom a more attractive place to work.

2024, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. The end of 0% interest rates changed everything: with decreasing salaries and layoffs, there’s less attention on employer branding because there’s a big pool of people to choose from anyway. HR discussions moved from innovative experiments of improving work-life balance to negotiating return-to-office policies.

My thoughts on the 4-day workweek idea

Do I believe a 4-day workweek is achievable, with different conditions, in a different company, and with properly adapted processes?


I think the question kind of misses the point though.

It assumes implicitly that time spent working is so horrible that it's better to cram it into fewer days to get done with it sooner. This was the unsaid statement of the experiment: “We know working here sucks, but hey, now you can suffer a day less for the same money, hope you won't quit”.

What if we would, instead, look at why it feels so bad at work?

Is it about a lack of purpose, autonomy, or new things to learn? Annoying colleagues, pointless meetings, boring projects, micromanaging bosses, demanding customers, wasteful processes, paralyzing bureaucracy? Is there nothing left to be done to address those instead of focusing on the number of days?

For example, if it’s hard to recharge on a 2-day weekend, instead of making it a 3-day one, what can we change in our workdays, from Monday to Friday, to make them less draining and more sustainable? So the main purpose of the weekend is not to heal the mental scars of a work week, but to have another side of life to enjoy?

I don’t think a 4-day workweek addresses the root cause. We need to be more ambitious and look deeper. What can we, leaders do to create a better work experience in our teams?

Update: We've discussed this article and four-day workweeks in general on our weekly podcast The Retrospective, adding thoughts on the topic with a guest who implemented this setup at his company. Check out the episode here.

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