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A New Norm? - Exploring the 4-Day Workweek

Are we truly our most productive when we work five days a week? Recent studies suggest that might not be the case.

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 try different types of arrangements - whether they wanted to or not. We've seen work-from-home, desk-absent workforces, hybrid set-ups, remote offices, and satellite offices.

But one concept that garnered attention before the pandemic is the 4-day workweek. Perhaps the earliest suggestion of a shortened workweek came in 1928 when economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a future 15-hour workweek by the turn of the century. Then, in the 20s and 30s, motorcar visionary Henry Ford instituted his own shorter workweek when he reduced the 60+ hour workweeks, which were more common at the time, to 40 hours in his factories, claiming it increased productivity.

The public's current interest in a shortened workweek was recently piqued in June 2021, when a report explaining Iceland's success in trials of a shorter workweek made the rounds on the internet. The report stated that decreasing the workweek to 36 or 35 hours per week without pay reductions improved workers' wellbeing, work-life balance, and cooperative spirit without impacting productivity. In fact, in some instances, productivity and service provision increased. Now, almost all of Iceland is adopting the new model.

To be clear, Iceland didn't explicitly implement a "4-day workweek"; it was a 35 or 36-hour workweek. However, the phrase "4-day workweek" packed a much heavier "umph," so reporters and the internet grabbed hold of it. But the question remains, is a sub-40-hour workweek a boon to productivity?

More Companies are Trialing Shortened Workweeks

Many employers are starting to take careful notice of their employee's sentiment - both on the job and during time away. This concern is long overdue. Recent shifts in work expectations, particularly in the virtual environment, have emphasized long hours and constant accessibility that, if unaddressed, can have detrimental impacts on workers. As a result, it's time for employers to begin making changes that will improve their employees' lives outside of work, and Iceland is not the only company to embrace this line of thinking.

Privately held New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian ran a trial in 2018 where they reduced their workweek from 37.5 hours to 30 hours with no changes in remuneration or other working conditions. The study, along with Microsoft in Japan and Unilever in New Zealand, have all produced similar results to those found in Iceland.

But what about in the US? Can shortened workweeks catch on here? The answer isn't so straightforward. It's a "yes… sort of." Some US companies seem to be considering the 4-day workweek concept. Kickstarter has announced its shift to the model, and other companies are also beginning to chime in. There's now even a non-profit called 4 Day Week Global Foundation that's launched a global campaign to advance 4-day workweeks, and its focus is in the US. Will it begin to gain momentum?

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 historically instituted shorter workweeks (Norway, Denmark, and Germany average 27 hours/week) are just as productive as companies in the US, where 40 hours are the norm, but if we're honest, closer to 50.

The 4-day workweek also has significant positive implications on equality in the workplace. Single mothers, for example, who shoulder the majority of household responsibilities and childcare find that the 4-day workweek helps to level the workplace playing field. As a result, they can better take care of their lives outside of work and show up to work more energized and carrying less stress.

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

Other documented advantages include improved employee engagement, fewer sick days, and a smaller carbon footprint due to less frequent commuting. It can even be used as a recruitment tool. As we face increasing labor shortages, companies need to become more competitive to attract talent, and offering shortened workweeks is an effective incentive.

However, the shortened workweek is not without its disadvantages. Government agencies, for example, that trialed a 4-day workweek experienced poor customer satisfaction. This could be the case for many customer-service organizations, although potential alternatives do exist. For example, Chatbots, AI-powered websites, or alternating employee schedules could help mitigate some of the negative impacts.

The most common concern for many before transitioning to a shorter workweek was that it could pressure employees into making up the time through informal/formal over time, but studies have shown this is not the case. Instead, employees are more organized with their work and demonstrate increased cooperation with managers. Even with the overwhelming advantages, however, the jury is still out on whether the shortened workweek is the future. Only time will tell.

Making the Shift

For those contemplating the shift to a shorter workweek, here are some helpful considerations:
●      Rethink task completion, shorten meetings, and eliminating unnecessary tasks
●      Become more flexible—don't insist on sticking to old routines
●      Change shift plans
●      Use alternatives to meetings (emails, electronic info sharing)
●      Set up a committee to explore new ways of working
●      The entire organization needs to have a shorter workweek—managers included
●      Add flexibility for occasional overtime when required in temporary situations

So much has changed since the pandemic. We now know that people's effectiveness is not contingent on trekking into an office every day. Instead, the focus has shifted to the employee's wellbeing. Given these recent changes, it's time for organizations to think about and perhaps reframe 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. The question is, what will your impact be? How will you adapt to the post-pandemic norm?

Peter Lesser

Peter is a recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University with a vast, diverse background in brand management, innovation, design and more. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. Over time, he shifted into the hospitality industry, co-founding his own restaurant consultancy that worked with new and struggling enterprises. In 2017, he returned to Boston to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. Peter is a lifelong musician and adventurer. When not working, you can find him playing music, hiking deep into the mountains, or watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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