Could Four-Day Workweeks Become the American Standard?

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It seems like everyone I know has become hyper-aware of work culture in the past two years: What’s essential work, who can work from home, how we can access childcare—a whole host of issues. So many of these things impact not just the way we work, but the way we live.

Momentum Builds for Four-Day Workweeks

The concept of the four-day work week isn’t a new one. But if the number of recent headlines is any indication, it’s been gaining momentum. A recent L.A. Times editorial posed the question, “What if every week was a four-day workweek?” An article in The Atlantic urges that we “Kill the 5-Day Workweek.”

Forbes posed the most provocative of the headlines: “The Future of Work Will Be Five-Hour Days, a Four-Day Workweek and Flexible Staggered Schedules.” That seems unlikely, but we’ve already seen the “impossible” become possible as massive numbers of employees found themselves working from home in 2019. Could it be time for us to re-imagine the way we approach work in the United States?

Congressman Mark Takano, a California Democrat, introduced legislation in July that would reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours. He points out that such policies have been shown to reduce healthcare premiums and decrease business operating costs, among other benefits.

Re-Imagining American Work Culture

The Wall Street Journal attempts to answer the question, “Is a Four-Day Week the Future of Work?” by discussing the concept with Kickstarter CEO Aziz Hasan, who’s piloting his version of the shortened week by offering employees the flexibility to decrease their workweeks by eight hours of their choice—with no decrease in pay. Hasan says he wants his teams to balance work and home life and free up more time for “personal pursuits.”

Hasan’s approach offers some important aspects to consider about the concept. Automatic Fridays off may not be the most helpful option for parents who just want to be able to leave the office to pick kids up from school, for example—or to share those duties with a partner. Setting a schedule of your own could get you much greater impact from your eight-hour windfall.

The Pros and Cons of the Four-Day Workweek

I’ve had some experience with the abbreviated workweek. Somewhere around 2003, I worked briefly for an employer that offered every other Friday off. But there was a catch. To make up for those eight hours, we had to work nine-hour days. Many of those days felt positively brutal. Which is why I found the ideas from another less prominent article particularly interesting.

Way over in Scotland, Change Recruitment Group recently posted “The Pros and Cons of a 4 Day Working Week.” It stresses that the gains of the four-day workweek come not from compressing the workweek, but by shortening it.

If you think shortening the workweek is impossible, consider another fact they tossed in: Full-time employees in U.S. manufacturing plants worked an average of 100 hours per week in 1890. One hundred hours.

You might already imagine what some of the “pros” are for employees, but multiple tests and studies indicate that the positive aspects of a four-day workweek extend to employers as well:

  • Increased employee satisfaction, company commitment and teamwork
  • Decreased stress levels
  • Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand found no drops in productivity or company output, and a Stanford University study found that overworked employees are actually less productive
  • Flexibility for childcare responsibilities—a benefit that would support the many women who have shouldered a greater childcare burden and more of the pandemic workplace fallout in the U.S.
  • Smaller carbon footprint (if offices are open fewer hours)

There are noteworthy arguments against the four-day workweek. It’s not cost-effective for every company, particularly those that can’t support their customers through chatbots and other AI web enhancements. Some businesses are more able than others to find creative ways to meet customers’ needs in fewer hours.

Will American Employers Adopt a New Culture?

Multiple countries are proving the four-day workweek can work. A successful test in Iceland found they lost no productivity by reducing 40-hour weeks to 35- or 36-hour weeks. In fact, the most productive countries in the world (including Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway) are those with cultures where employees work an average of 27 hours per week.

Americans are quitting their jobs in record numbers, leaving many employers scrambling to come up with the best ways to woo them back. The four-day workweek could be one way to do that.

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