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Will the Shorter Work Week Be a Short-term Trend?

Will the Shorter Work Week Be a Short-term Trend?

The Four-Day Work Week: Why is it in the news?

Businesses have been toying with the idea of a four-day work week for over 80 years, but the seeds for a shorter work week were sowed much earlier.

Back in 1928, John Maynard Keynes, a British economist in his essay titled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” had predicted that by 2028 the standard of life in the United States and Europe will be way more flexible.

Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and humanist of the mid-20th century, said “Some day no one will have to work more than two days a week... Human beings can consume so much and no more. When we reach the point when the world produces all the goods that it needs in two days, as it inevitably will, we must curtail our production of goods and turn our attention to the great problem of what to do with our new leisure.” 

The working hours in the United States have been 40 hours a week since the Great Depression. Back in 2010, The New Economic Foundation proposed that 21-hour work weeks could be a significant shift in reducing high carbon emissions and increasing productivity. Some of the businesses implemented a short work week on a trial basis in 2010, but it provided only for anecdotal evidence. 

Microsoft’s trial in Japan in 2019 resulted in 40% improved productivity. Last year, Iceland’s trial of a four-day work week without a pay cut improved well-being and productivity. Atom bank witnessed an increase in job applications after announcing a  four-day work week. The UK is the latest country to join the band and is embarking on the world's biggest trial for this new trend, where different sectors will be participating for six months to reap the benefits. 

While the four-day work week may be a small perk that businesses offer, the topic is making waves in the media. Work futurists believe that it will contribute to the high success of companies. According to the World Economic Forum, a positive shift toward a four-day work week heralds adaptable, purpose-driven, and well-being-focused organizations. 

Four-Day Work Week: 4 Better or 4 Worse?

The findings of several studies indicate that a four-day work week can improve employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention. However, some experts aren’t too optimistic about it. For example, recently, the California Chamber of Commerce included the 4-day work week bill (bill AB293) in its annual list of potential “job killers,” reasoning that such a policy may skyrocket hiring costs. 

Holistically, what do the trials reveal? Is the transition to a four-day work week worth all the hype? Can we get more out of our workforces with them clocking in for fewer days?

The Good

Increased productivity, mental well-being, and engagement

The call for increased workplace flexibility isn’t new, nor are the benefits. Numerous studies have proved that employees do their best when choosing where and when they work, boosting productivity and mental well-being.

The four-day work week is another such add-on to an employee’s autonomy. It allows employees to disengage from work for extended periods and report to work afresh. Several trials have confirmed the same; Microsoft and Iceland’s examples are just the tip of a growing iceberg. 

Most studies found that businesses, both for-profit and non-profits, made a rainfall despite employees working for fewer days.

More inclusiveness

Even before the pandemic, Sage’s Gender Pay Gap Report showed that over 2 million people weren’t part of the workforce due to childcare responsibilities - 89% being women.

Despite its roaring success in offering flexibility, remote work failed to help employees from these segments of society. In particular, women and single parents still had a hard time balancing caregiving commitments and work. 

Sima Sajjadiani, assistant professor of organizational and human behavior at the University of British Columbia, clearly explains how a two-day break is problematic for these workforce segments. “Women, especially those with younger children, talk about how they have no weekend,” she says. “The whole weekend goes to shopping, cleaning, laundry.”

Moreover, with children being tutored online and homeschooled amid lockdowns, you don’t need second guesses on why women left the workforce. 

Studies showed that the four-day work week acted as a great leveler. Employees with caregiving responsibilities could spend more time with their children, discharge family commitments, and still stay committed to work. 

The author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, shares some interesting points here. In the interviews conducted leading to the book, he found that companies who adopted the four-day work week model were willing to hire working moms for their experience, organizational skills, collaborative ability, and time management. 

It’s interesting how we can effectively transfer skills and experiences from personal commitments to the workplace. Despite the perks of an extended weekend, a four-day work week can demand agility and an ability to prioritize at the workplace. If more literature demonstrates that people with caregiving commitments can benefit their workplace with their skills, this may break stereotypes and effectively change how we structure workforces.

Improved consumer demand

Several economies declare local holidays and extended weekends to encourage consumer spending and boost demand. For example, Thanksgiving, traditionally celebrated in the USA, is now a “shopping holiday” in several countries in Europe. 

A three-day break would push workforces to travel and spend time in leisure, thus stimulating local economies. This can help previously stagnant economies which faced the brunt of the lockdown.

This could also help us reverse The Donut Effect of Covid-19: a phenomenon in which demand from centers of metropolitan cities is reduced because of people leaving and how demand shot up in suburbs and the countryside. With more time to spend on leisure, employees can bring back demand for services in urban areas.

The Not So Good 

A reduced work week means that employees have to do 100% of their work in 80% of their time. Also, services are open for fewer days of the week. 

(Some) Sectors, services, and scheduling may be impacted

Although studies show that revenue and profit margins remain unaffected (in some studies, profits even improved), the four-day work week cannot emulate these effects for sectors like construction, tourism, retail, and healthcare. 

In the trials held in Iceland, while productivity gains made up for fewer working hours, not all jobs could be done in shorter shifts. When employees worked four days a week, the Icelandic government had to hire more healthcare workers at the cost of £24.2 million annually to upkeep operations and services 24x7.

In addition, managers saw scheduling issues in effectively carrying out meetings. While all team meetings can be planned when employees are available in-house, an impromptu meeting may prove problematic. In addition, brainstorming sessions may only receive limited input with fewer employees.

Whether a four-day work week is feasible depends on how we can plan and accommodate meetings within the work week and work asynchronously.

Feelings of dissent

Over the last few years, we saw how pay differences between remote workers and in-office employees affected employee morale. Criticism flooded in when screenshots of Google's Work Location Tool surfaced, showing remote employees receiving 10% - 25% pay cuts depending on their location.

Similar trouble may brew if some teams are offered a four-day work week while some are left hustling for more. Unfortunately, some business functions require an employee’s presence across all five days as they help companies with 24×7 monitoring, deliver instant services, run round-the-clock helpdesks, and use real-time data to make business decisions. In supply chain and logistics, workforces are required continually to deliver products and services. This may sometimes be a company’s competitive advantage as well.

Although technology may answer most of these problems, this difference in work requirements may hurt employee sentiments. When this occurs across more extended periods, this may give rise to feelings of dissent and envy toward those with the privilege of a four-day work week. 

Countries Embracing the Four-Day Work Week Movement

The four-day work week is seen as the future of employee productivity and work-life balance. In fact, countries around the world have or are planning to experiment with it.

Labour movements across Europe are trying to encourage governments to implement a four-day work week, but which countries have embraced the concept, and how have they  coped so far?

Iceland

Iceland was the pioneer in the movement. The country conducted the world's largest trial of a shorter work week from 2015 to 2019, which revealed measurable success—everyone was more content, healthy, and productive. Icelandic trade unions and confederations secured permanent reductions in working hours for their members throughout the country.

Scotland

Following the success of Iceland's four-day work week, Scotland dabbled with a novel approach to balancing work and personal life. Scotland discovered that reducing the number of days worked—with no loss of pay—had a positive effect on the employees’ wellbeing.

Ireland

Ireland has also launched a pilot program to test the effectiveness of a four-day work week with no pay reduction for employees in January 2022. According to Four Day Work Week, 17 companies from across the country signed up for the program and will soon receive assistance, training, and mentoring on how to make the four-day week operate under the new system.

New Zealand

In 2020, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, proposed a four-day work week and other flexible work options. Unilever's New Zealand office started with an experiment on a four-day work week. If the experiment proves successful, the company plans to expand it to other countries.

Japan

The Japanese government launched an initiative in June 2021, asking companies to implement a four-day work week in an attempt to improve the nation's work-life balance. Panasonic and Microsoft are among Japan’s consumer electronic giants to veer away from the country's workaholic culture and incorporate a four-day work week. 

UAE

UAE reduced its official working week to four and a half days in early December 2021. The new change went into effect on January 1, 2022 and was implemented to improve work-life balance and productivity. 

Spain

In 2021, the Spanish government announced that it agreed to experiment with a trial four-day work week. The government agreed to Más Pas' proposal to allow companies to test reduced hours, 32-hour work week, phased in over three years without reducing workers' pay.

Belgium

As part of its post-COVID labour law changes, Belgium joined a slew of other countries in implementing a four-day work week. After the government overhauled labor practices on February 15, 2022 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, workers in Belgium will be able to request a four-day work week without giving up pay.

Lithuania

Lithuania became the first Eastern European country to offer a four-day work week for the same average pay to families with young children in state administration. Legislators in Vilnius supported legislation and passed it in writing on April 15, 2022

United Kingdom

The largest pilot program to study the impact of shorter working hours on business productivity and employee well-being was launched in June 2022. Employees participating in the program will receive 100% of their pay for working only 80% of their standard week in exchange for pledging to maintain 100% of their productivity.

Alternatives to a Four-Day Work Week

Flexible work timings

Our bodies are telling us that we need to go home. We're still functioning on a four-to-eight-hour sleep cycle, but the lights are on, and our brains are signaling that it's time to go home. So why do so many people stay in bed for another hour or even two?

A recent study by the University of Colorado at Boulder found that when people were given the option of working from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., they were significantly more productive than those who had to work from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., despite their early start times. They could even complete tasks faster overall than their colleagues who had to work during regular business hours — this was true even when researchers controlled factors such as prior experience and workloads.

Set working hours per year

Companies who allow employees flexibility in terms of hours tend to have higher levels of employee engagement than those who don't offer those options, according to a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). 

The benefits of the four-day work week are not a myth. There is a lot of evidence that it can help people get more done, but also that it's possible to balance work with life without compromising on quality.

Organizations can have contracts with workers stipulating a certain number of hours worked per week/month/year. This can be especially useful for caregivers and members from communities that are often overlooked as it affords them the flexibility to work when it’s most convenient for them.

What Four Day Work Week Advocates and Critics Have to Say

The answer about the efficacy of a short work week is still being worked out, but it is the latest fad to inspire debate among experts and advocates alike.

According to Andrew Barnes, who is one of the leading advocates of the four-day work week: “by focusing on productivity and output rather than time spent in a workplace, the four-day week allows for better work-life balance, improved employee satisfaction, retention, and mental health.”

At the World Economic Forum's annual conference in Davos in May, Manpower Group CEO Jonas Prising also supported the claim and said that the traditional nine-to-five, five-day work week "looks more old-fashioned than a Ford Model T".

Noting that the results of a four-day work week all point to “an evolving definition of work," he emphasized the importance of companies’ need to listen, learn, and adapt to what the current situation and employee needs. 

On the other hand, one of the most bittersweet points brought up was from Gallup’s Jim Harter and Ryan Pendell's findings. Despite the higher levels of satisfaction and less burnout, they found that employees have higher levels of detachment.

"By working fewer days per week, employees who already feel disconnected from their employer, team, or manager are more likely to drift even farther away — from tolerating their jobs to hating them," Harter and Pendell noted.

But during an interview, Harter countered the statement and said that a good manager could offset any disengagement. His recommendation, nevertheless, is for governments and companies to offer flexible schedules rather than four-day weeks so that employees can tailor their hours to their specific needs.

What Next? 

Workplace culture has been dancing to the beats of a rather unpredictable drummer for the past couple of years. 

The last two years, in particular, have also seen the exponential growth of technology and tools that have enabled effective collaboration across boundaries and established flexible ways of working as the norm. 

Thanks to this, the conventional five-days-a-week, nine-hours-a-day work model now has some serious doubters. But whether companies worldwide will readily jump onto the four-day bandwagon remains a doubt. 

Take the now-ubiquitous fork for example. It took generations for the fork to be accepted as part of cutlery around the world despite its obvious and unique advantages. Will the revolution in our work week take as long? We hope not. 

It could be seen as a natural evolution of the way we work. In the early 19th century, British socialist, Robert Owen proposed working eight hours per day, six days a week rather than the-then usual 10+ (even 18 in some cases) hours. In 1926, Ford’s move to five-day work weeks was both revolutionary and extremely productive. 

The concepts of four-day work weeks are still in the nascent stages, but that it allows far more flexibility—in terms of structure and work timings—cannot be overseen. Its applications can be varied, from extending the weekend to taking the Wednesday off, from splitting 32 hours over five days to even cramming 40 into four. 

The flexibility could be perfect for this generation, which strives on diversity and inclusion. It could empower the traditionally overlooked sections of the populace by allowing them to choose a model that works best for them. From non-paid caregivers to those working multiple jobs to make ends meet, the four-day work week could be a blessing. 

From an enterprise point of view, the shift in work culture will take some getting used to. Companies need to start looking beyond what is just in front of them and understand that the time they are giving back to their employees can have serious positive outcomes. 

It’s no longer a secret that Gen-Z workers now prefer companies that put societal values and employee benefits over profits. Many companies have been able to beat the Great Resignation by adapting to the new work week. There are also monetary benefits to be made from shifting to a four-day work week, like lower rentals, admin and security duties, and commute charges. 

The biggest obstacle for companies will be to overcome the mindset that time spent doing work = value. 

Workers’ approach to work has permanently changed. Perhaps it is time for companies to take the cue, too.

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