Is a four-day week the future of work?8 min read . Updated: 31 Jul 2021, 01:10 PM IST
- Working fewer hours is getting a new look during the pandemic as companies experiment with cures for employee burnout
Kickstarter Chief Executive Aziz Hasan had to embrace remote work during the initial stage of the pandemic. Now this boss wants to reward employees who stuck around with a new perk: the four-day workweek.
Starting next year the Brooklyn crowdfunding company plans to allow its employees to clock eight fewer hours over four days for no less pay, as part of a pilot study. Mr. Hasan’s bet is that the shortened schedule will allow workers to juggle work and home life while having more time for personal pursuits. He hopes Kickstarter’s staff of roughly 90 will be just as productive in carrying out the company’s mission of funding creative projects, if not more so.
“You can’t learn until you start doing it," Mr. Hasan said. “People are curious what it will look like and if it will work."
Covid-19 is calling into question long-held views about the structure and nature of work, including—for some—the tradition of the five-day, 40-hour week. Remote arrangements freed employees of some constraints in 2020, but it also sparked burnout as some put in even longer hours. More are demanding an improved work-life balance as they return to the office in 2021.
“The experience of the pandemic and working from home has us beginning to question all the face-time requirements of the workplace," said Ben Hunnicutt, a professor at the University of Iowa and the author of “Work Without End," a study of past attempts to shorten the work week. “We can get our work done and go home."
In a labor market where employees are quitting their jobs and employers are competing for top talent, the benefit of a shorter week is already a recruitment tool for managers such as Metro Plastics Technologies CEO Lindsey Hahn. He said a decision to institute shorter six-hour shifts (with no breaks) at his Noblesville, Ind., factory in the 1990s has helped insulate the company from worker shortages.
Widespread adoption, however, faces a number of hurdles in the U.S. A handful of smaller, privately held American companies have experimented with shorter weeks since the pandemic’s onset, but many large companies have not embraced the concept. In 2019, Microsoft Corp. discontinued a temporary four-day week in Japan after five weeks. A company spokeswoman declined to discuss the results of the pilot.
It could also be a tough sell for hourly workers who live from paycheck to paycheck, said Jackie Reinberg, who heads the absence management and leave consulting work at Willis Towers Watson. “If we go to a four-day workweek and you’re paid for four days, that won’t work for many Americans."
Fits and starts
Earlier attempts to make a shorter workweek stick in the U.S. were unsuccessful. Some companies reduced weekly worker hours below 40 during the Great Depression to share what little work was available, and in 1933 the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have limited the workweek to 30 hours. But after President Franklin Roosevelt dropped his support for the bill, it didn’t pass the House. Five years later, the idea of a 40-hour workweek became standard as part of New Deal legislation.
The concept of working fewer days or hours surfaced again from time to time—Richard Nixon as vice president predicted the adoption of a four-day workweek—but it never achieved mainstream acceptance. Even Kellogg Co., which gained attention for instituting six-hour shifts at a cereal plant in 1930—ended the shortened schedule for most departments following World War II, according to the company. Kellogg reinstated eight-hour shifts for all departments in the mid 1980s, the company said.
The idea of a shorter workweek has long had more traction outside the U.S., especially in places where long working hours and stress are not as big a part of the culture. In some high-paying American sectors that are used to being a part of the world’s largest economy, such as finance and the law, working late nights and weekends is still a badge of honor and can lead to a promotion.
“For large corporate America, it wouldn’t fit the culture of expecting everyone to be available at any given point of time in highly competitive business where decisions need to be made quickly," said David Yoffie, a Harvard Business School professor who has served as a director for numerous companies, including Intel Corp. A shorter workweek is more likely to be a fit for smaller service businesses, he added, but not larger companies in highly competitive industries.
“Would it work at any company I’ve been on the board of, I don’t see it," he said. “It certainly doesn’t work for the senior executive team."
Broadly implementing a four day workweek policy now won’t work for every company, said Elizabeth Knox, founder of MatchPace, a Washington, D.C., workplace-effectiveness consultant that helps clients optimize their schedules.
“It sounds good, but alone it’s not going to solve an organization’s problems of being unable to prioritize," she said. “It’s more complicated and nuanced than just taking a day out of work."
Fewer days, more focus
One company that learned this lesson was market-research consulting firm Alter Agents. It tried a four-day workweek last summer as a way to give employees more manageable schedules during the stress of the pandemic. Rebecca Brooks, Alter’s CEO, had employees select different days off than their co-workers so a rotation of consultants would always be available to interact with clients.
The company ditched the experiment after 10 weeks, during which a raft of problems arose. The additional day off required extra effort from employees to brief colleagues on what they missed while out and made scheduling events or meetings more difficult. Employees who volunteered to make meetings on their scheduled days off felt stressed, and some resented co-workers who turned off email while out.
“It was more stressful to not be at that meeting or take the day off for some employees," Ms. Brooks said. “It led to resentment among some employees. It frayed the team culture."
The company came up with an alternative solution: giving staff an additional day off every month on top of normal benefits. The extra day reduced stress and gave Alter a recruiting edge with new hires seeking better work-life balance, according to Ms. Brooks.
“We were able to hold on to the intent, giving employees time back and more freedom in their schedule," she said.
A critical component to making the shorter week work is that employees need to relearn how to work in a more focused way, said Justine Jordan, head of marketing at a Philadelphia software company that first allowed employees to work 32-hour weeks starting in 2017. That means fewer meetings and avoiding day-to day distractions, she said. Most at the 30-person firm, Wildbit, take Friday off; some take Monday; and a smaller group, mostly parents, spread their time off across five days, she said.
Subtracting a day from the workweek is a logistical challenge for any company, said Ms. Reinberg of Willis Towers Watson. Companies will have to change customer interactions and productivity measurements, not to mention scheduling, if some employees or teams take off on different days.
Kickstarter’s CEO, Mr. Hasan, said his company won’t start its four-day workweek pilot until next year because it needs the time to sort out those questions and more, including how meetings will run with less time and should different teams work at different times or days than others.
“We don’t have the perfect design today," Mr. Hasan said. “You could say the same thing with remote work, it wasn’t widely accepted until we stepped into this pandemic and people are now seeing capabilities unlocked by it."
The Denver nonprofit Uncharted, which supports young companies, began piloting a four-day workweek last summer by giving employees Fridays off. Employees tended to ask their peers for help less frequently because they didn’t want to bother colleagues during a shortened week, CEO Banks Benitez said. Still, the company has kept the model.
Adrienne Russman, director of Uncharted’s government and community relations, was skeptical about the shorter week. Knowing that she has an extra day to tackle tasks such as laundry or meal planning helps her be more focused at work, she said.
“The last year was just so emotionally taxing, I found myself going through days thinking I’m just so tired," said Ms. Russman, who lives in Denver. “It was nice to count on a three-day weekend every weekend."
The Iceland experiment
The evidence is also mixed as to how effective shorter workweeks have been in countries that embraced the concept. In Germany, efforts to shorten working hours in the decade through 1994 might have hurt employment, according to a study by Rutgers University economist Jennifer Hunt. A 2009 study led by McGill University economist Matthieu Chemin suggests that a 35-hour policy in France that began in 2000 did little to increase employment.
Other overseas pilots are in the works. In March, Spain’s government said it would pay companies to test out a four-day week. And last November, London consumer goods giant Unilever launched a pilot of the concept in its New Zealand offices. This past week it said it would wait until the trial’s end in December to decide about a broader roll out.
One country that did show positive results was Iceland, where there is new evidence that a reduced schedule worked for some participants there. A group of more than 2,500 employees in Iceland who logged fewer hours without a pay cut showed improvements in well being and productivity, according to a study released earlier this month by Autonomy, a U.K.-based think tank.
The Reykjavik City Council and Iceland’s government conducted the trials between 2015 and 2019 after unions there called for shorter workweeks. Overall output didn’t dip in most workplaces, and in some, it improved, the report said. Most workers maintained or improved their productivity while also reporting reduced stress.
Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, head of the union for state and municipal workers in Iceland, or BSRB, said she and most public-sector employees in the country now work 36 hours a week instead of 40. Office employees are advised to give priority to projects, stay focused in shorter meetings and keep personal matters such as calls, personal errands and social media at a minimum during work hours, she said.
“A shorter workweek also demands a change in culture," she said, “and letting go of the myth that long working hours lead to better results."
(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text)
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