Four-day work week may soon supplant five
Legislators, employees behind growing movement for shorter hours
The widespread adoption of a five-day workweek is just over a century old, but in many places it seems to be giving way to something new.
The movement for a four-day work week has been gaining momentum since the so-called “Great Resignation” saw 47 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021.
It’s not just an American phenomenon. In Iceland, more than three-quarters of jobs already require only four days work per week. Other countries are experimenting, too!
Some ascribe the dramatic shift to changes forced by the COVID pandemic, but the trend started well before lockdowns began.
Public and private sector employers in are finding that offering a four-day week is a significant recruiting incentive. Surveys find majorities of workers say having an extra day off makes them more fulfilled.
It seems to be an idea whose time has come.
One reason a four-day work week is suddenly a distinct possibility in the US is that it’s being taken seriously by legislators at the federal level and in California.
A bill mandating the change for larger firms was introduced in the House of Representatives last year, and a similar one in the California Assembly in February.
Both proposals are in the early stages, but indicate that there is some support for legislation that would fundamentally change the working environment in the US.
Since California’s economy is so large (over 14% of the entire US economy), if its proposal becomes law it would have a major impact and likely provide impetus for the federal legislation – as the state has done previously.
Assembly Bill 2932 in the California Assembly could make the state the first to implement a four-day workweek for companies with 500 employees or more.
According to the state’s Legislative Counsel, under the proposed legislation employers in California with more than 500 employees would be required to pay overtime at a rate of at least 1 1/2 times an employee’s regular pay for any additional work beyond 32 hours per week, rather than the current 40 hours.
Additionally, employers covered by the bill would be barred from cutting an employee’s pay rate because of the shortened workweek.
“The bill would require the compensation rate of pay at 32 hours to reflect the previous compensation rate of pay at 40 hours and would prohibit an employer from reducing an employee’s regular rate of pay as a result of this reduced hourly workweek requirement,” the legislative analysis says.
One of the authors of the bill, Assembly member Christina Garcia, said the proposal is part of a broader focus on work-life balance spurred by the COVID pandemic.
“We’ve had a five-day workweek since the Industrial Revolution,” Garcia said recently. “But we’ve had a lot of progress in society, and we’ve had a lot of advancements. I think the pandemic right now allows us the opportunity to rethink things, to reimagine things.”
Numerous studies of topic
The four-day work week is not a new concept, however, and has been subject of considerable study and practical applications in various locations.
According to the nonprofit research and advocacy group 4 Day Week Global, some 63% of businesses say a shorter week made it easier to attract and retain talent and 78% of employees claimed they were happier.
“The conversation about the 4 Day work week is all over the world,” the group says on its web site.
“We encourage business, employees, researchers, and government to all play their part in creating a new way of working which will improve business productivity, worker health outcomes, stronger families and communities, challenge the gender equality issue, and work towards a more sustainable work environment.”
Indeed, a shorter work week will impact the daily lives of millions of people in ways we have not even imagined before.
The communications manager at 4-day Week Global Andrew Barnes said in a March 4 release that the Four Day Week movement has grown at such a fast pace since he first developed the research model used by his group “that now 4 Day Week Global requires a dedicated team of experts to usher organizations across the world through our research-backed pilot program.
“[T]he 4-day week tackles hard issues facing our world, for example, stress and the breakdown in mental health, gender equality in pay, and the environmental crisis.
“Four-day weeks offer significant societal benefits from relief of congested highways and public transport systems, reduction in healthcare costs, through to more harmonious families and more purposeful lives.”
As awareness of proposals for a four-day work week has grown, so has public support for it.
According to a July 13, 2021 Morning Consult opinion poll a 4-Day Workweek Appeals to 40% of U.S. workers.
“When presented with several 40-hour workweek options to choose from, ranging from three long days to seven short days, 40% of 1,067 employed adults said they’d most prefer working four days per week for at least 10 hours a day,” Morning Consult reported.
“Women and members of older generations, as well as those who live in suburban areas, showed the strongest support for the four-day model, according to the survey.”
A shorter work week is being considered and tried out in several parts of the developed world.
Indeed, a major nationwide pilot project has already been completed in Iceland.
The Iceland project was explained in a July article on CNBC A 4-day workweek is the norm in Iceland.
According to the story, about 85% of workers in Iceland are already – or are on the way to – working four days a week instead of five.
Several trials, in which workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours, took place between 2015 and 2019.
And even though workers in Iceland are spending less time at their jobs, their pay hasn’t declined, according to new research by Autonomy a U.K.-based think tank focused on labor’s future.
Jack Kellam, a researcher at Autonomy, said that in many contemporary economies, there’s a growing sense that people are overworked.
“The COVID pandemic introduced a sudden shift to our working practices, as people have gone from the office to remote working,” he said.
“That led people to question their priorities as to what they’d like to be doing with their lives. It also showed that quite dramatic changes can take place in the world of work relatively quickly. A four-day week is a more real possibility.”
Kellam noted that even though Iceland is a small country of only 330,000 people, over 85% of workers have made the change.
Apart from the rapid shift in attitudes caused at least in part by remote work during the pandemic, the change had other social benefits, Kellam said.
Among them, “a vast reduction in the emissions and energy costs associated with commuting, not to mention keeping offices and workplaces warm and air-conditioned.”
While not a direct goal of the four-day week, its impact on energy consumption is an additional benefit that would be good for the entire society – and even the world.
More details on the Iceland project were reported by the BBC in its article Four-day week 'an overwhelming success' in Iceland.
Trials of a four-day week in Iceland were an "overwhelming success" and led to many workers moving to shorter hours, according to the BBC.
Productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces, researchers said.
In Iceland, trials run by Reykjavík City Council and the national government eventually included more than 2,500 workers, about 1% of Iceland's working population.
“Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved,” the BBC reported. “They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores.”
The research conducted in the UK was discussed by Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy.
“This study shows that the world's largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success,” Stronge said. “It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks – and lessons can be learned for other governments.”
A number of other trials are now being run across the world, including in Spain and in New Zealand.
The real-world trial in Iceland has been backed up by an authoritative study by recruitment and consulting firm G2i: The 4 Day Work Week: The Future of the Workplace which says on its web site: “What originally felt like a farfetched dream is becoming a reality. The 4-day work week is gaining momentum, with more and more companies of all sizes adopting this new work schedule to better position themselves for the future.”
G2i itself has already gone to a four-day week for all its employees, and reports that there are many benefits – some obvious, others less intuitive – to adopting a four-day work.
Its most significant findings are the more obvious ones:
It is a major plus in recruiting top talent – an increase in applications of about 15%;
It helps reduce turnover and retain talented workers – 63% of employers reported lower turnover;
More work at a higher quality was completed – an increase of up to 40% in productivity.
But the study says adopting the four-day week is, on its own, not enough. Other workplace changes that reinforce the benefits are mostly cultural.
They include positive leadership, asynchronous communications (fewer phone calls, more emails or text messages), few and shorter meetings, and strict prioritizing of the most important tasks.
The shorter work week has actually been on the agenda in the US Congress for almost six months already – but does not seem to be moving very quickly, if at all.
According to a Dec. 31 MSNC article, the four-day workweek gains traction in Congress, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the biggest bloc of liberal lawmakers in Congress, on Dec. 7 endorsed a bill proposed by Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., which would seek to implement a four-day workweek.
In a statement on the 32-Hour Workweek Act, Takano said he was pleased with the support.
“As a longtime member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I am proud that the caucus voted to formally endorse my 32-Hour Workweek Act in support of transitioning toward a modern-day business model that prioritizes productivity, fair pay, and an improved quality of life for workers across the country.
“After a nearly two-year-long pandemic that forced millions of people to explore remote work options, it’s safe to say that we can’t – and shouldn’t – simply go back to normal, because normal wasn’t working.
“It’s time for progress and I am confident that with the CPC behind this bill, we can take meaningful steps forward and create positive, lasting change in people’s lives.”
The bill has not yet been taken up by the House.
Debate has been engaged
With increasing interest by legislators at both the state and federal level, it seems like the switch from a five-day, 40-hour work week is moving up the agenda.
It is also drawing attention from many major media outlets; there have been a significant number of stories about the topic recently.
The debate seems to have been engaged.
There seems to be a groundswell of support for at least some incremental change. Perhaps a 4-day week will be adopted voluntarily by private businesses before legislation is passed making it mandatory for everyone.
The benefits are clear; the costs seemingly not insurmountable.
We are likely to be hearing a lot more about it in the near future.
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