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A New Norm? Exploring the Four-Day Workweek

Are we truly our most productive when we work five days a week? Recent studies suggest otherwise.

Since COVID-19 shattered our perceptions of what the modern work environment could and should be, workplaces and employers worldwide have had many opportunities to explore alternative approaches--whether they wanted to or not. So far, we've seen work-from-home, desk-absent workforces, hybrid set-ups, and remote and satellite offices, among others.

Another idea that garnered attention even before the pandemic? The four-day workweek.

Perhaps the earliest suggestion of a shortened workweek came in 1928, when economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek by the turn of the century. In the 1920s and 1930s, automotive visionary Henry Ford reduced the already-common 60-plus-hour workweek to 40 hours in his factories, claiming it increased productivity.

The public's current interest in a shortened workweek was piqued in June 2021, when a report explaining Iceland's success in trials of a shorter workweek made the rounds online. It stated that decreasing the workweek to 36 or 35 hours without pay reductions improved workers' wellbeing, work-life balance, and cooperative spirit without negatively impacting productivity--in some instances, productivity even increased. Now, almost all of Iceland is adopting the new model. (Note: Iceland didn't explicitly implement a four-day workweek--the phrase packed more punch, so the media grabbed hold of it.)

But the question remains: does an abbreviated workweek increase productivity?

More Companies are Trialing Shortened Workweeks

Many employers are starting to take note of employee sentiment toward working conditions--concern that is long overdue. Recent shifts in work expectations, particularly in the virtual environment, have emphasized long hours and constant accessibility that, if left unaddressed, can detrimentally impact both workplace morale and the bottom line. Iceland isn't alone in its thinking: Employers everywhere need to begin making changes that will improve employees' lives outside of work.

Take New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian, which ran a 2018 trial where it reduced the workweek from 37.5 hours to 30 hours, with no changes in remuneration or other working conditions. The study, along with one conducted by Microsoft in Japan and another by Unilever in New Zealand, have all revealed similar results to those found in Iceland.

Can shortened workweeks catch on in the US? The answer isn't so straightforward.  Some US companies seem to be considering the four-day-workweek concept: Kickstarter, for example, has announced its shift to the model. There's even a non-profit, the 4 Day Week Global Foundation, that's launched a global campaign to advance four-day workweeks, with a primary focus on the US. Will it begin to gain steam?

Advantages and Disadvantages to a Shorter Workweek

Let's begin with the advantages. Overworked employees are less productive than those working an average 40-hour week. Countries that have instituted shorter workweeks--such as Norway, Denmark, and Germany, which average 27 hours/week--are as productive as companies in the US, where 40-hour weeks are standard and 50-hour ones are commonplace.

The idea also has significant positive implications for equality in the workplace. Single mothers, for example, who shoulder the majority of household responsibilities and childcare, find that four-day workweeks help level the workplace playing field. As a result, they can better take care of their personal lives show up to work more energized and less stressed.

The Iceland study showed that a shorter workweek allowed for more participation in home responsibilities (especially for men in heterosexual relationships), time for errands and extracurriculars, better self-care, more time with younger children, lower stress levels, increased exercise, decreased fatigue, and improved social lives.

Other documented advantages include improved employee engagement, fewer sick days, and a smaller carbon footprint due to less frequent commuting. Its potential as a recruiting tool is clear: as we contend with growing labor shortages, companies need to offer more incentives to attract talent, and a shortened workweek is an alluring perk.

However, the concept has its disadvantages. Government agencies, for example, that trialed a four-day workweek experienced poor customer satisfaction--a possible outcome for many customer-service organizations, although potential alternatives do exist. Chatbots, AI-powered websites, and alternating employee schedules could help mitigate some of the negative impact.

While many companies worry that implementing a shorter workweek could pressure employees into making up the hours through informal/formal overtime, studies have revealed otherwise: employees are more organized in their work and demonstrate increased cooperation with managers.

While the four-day workweek's list of advantages is long, only time will tell whether it's the future.

Making the Shift

Here are some helpful considerations for those contemplating the shift to a shorter workweek:
●      Rethink task completion, shorten meetings, and eliminating unnecessary tasks
●      Become more flexible—don't insist on sticking to old routines
●      Change shift plans
●      Explore alternatives to meetings (emails, electronic info sharing)
●      Establish a committee to explore new ways of working
●      Allow flexibility for occasional overtime when required

So much has changed since the pandemic--we now know that the ability to do one's job isn't contingent on trekking into an office every day. Instead, focus has shifted to employee wellbeing. In light of this paradigm shift, it's time for organizations to consider reframing the models that have traditionally governed the workplace. Whether or not you shorten your workweek, you have a role to play in the human-work experience. What will your impact be? How will you adapt and contribute to the post-pandemic future of work?

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