Does a 4-day workweek make sense?

Experts cite both downsides, upsides to shortened hours

Does a 4-day workweek make sense?

The Ontario Liberals recently promised they would launch a pilot project to analyze the potential for a four-day workweek if elected in 2022.

And Iceland recently reported good results for its experimentation with a compressed workweek.

But the concept has its challenges and must be planned carefully, say experts.

Potential downsides to shortened week

“Something like this is not always good for business. This might be just another headache for employers and business owners and whomever has to deal with and coordinate,” says Marc Belaiche, president of TorontoJobs.ca in Toronto. “And what business value does it really add?”

For one, what will a shortened workweek mean for people who may be struggling to pay their bills at five days a week?

“In theory, it’s supposed to potentially improve mental health but it could also impair mental health,” says Belaiche.

As well, not all employees will take full advantage of the day off, perhaps to their detriment, he says.

“Are they literally taking it off? A lot of people have side gigs and does that mean the employer is allowing the employee to do their side gig for the fifth day when they’re supposed to be potentially taking it off to improve their mental health? They’re not really resting.”

And what about the effect on company culture if more people are suddenly in the workplace less often?

“If a company has people that are working from home already and they disappear for another day, does the engagement suffer even more than it already has because people are working from home? Or if everybody’s back at an office or a distribution centre, and somebody is just not there for one of those five days, how will that impact engagement?” says Belaiche.

As well, scheduling which days are off could be quite daunting, depending on the nature of the business, he says.

“Is it Mondays one week, and then Tuesdays next week, or Wednesdays next week? How do you decide that? How do you rotate the people? It’s another layer of complexity for companies and businesses to have to deal with when they’re already maybe struggling with hard-to-find staff. You’re layering on a level of complexity that doesn’t really add to the organization’s productivity.”

Advantages for employers

But with the upheavals of the pandemic, perhaps it’s an idea whose time has come.

“I think the conversation has become more real very quickly, where people are actually starting to say, ‘Yes, this sounds like a great idea,’” says Debby Carreau, CEO and founder of Inspired HR in Vancouver. “The data is starting to prove it out… especially with the war for talent we’re seeing, the labour market is so tight and employers are tired of just throwing money at the problem and they’re trying to be more innovative.”

Eighty-eight per cent of office workers in Canada would take a four-day work week if it was offered, found a 2019 survey released by Citrix.

The benefits of such an approach are pretty apparent, she says.

“We’re seeing happiness is better, stress is lower. Interestingly, on a broader, more macro-perspective, it’s better for gender equality in particular, where we see women often have more of the housework-type of things, whether it’s taking care of children and elderly parents or actually keeping the home running… having that extra day just tends to benefit them even more than men.

“If you’re looking for gender diversity in the workplace, we’re starting to see good things there,” she says.

Planning is key

Starting out small is the prudent way.

“People really need to think carefully about how you would do a pilot before launching this more broadly, so it’s important to pick a department or pick a team and really study this well because it’s really hard to come back from when you do something like this,” says Carreau.

“We just have to be very cautious because we’ve got data from different places in the world but it doesn’t always translate to Canada, so we need to do our own research before everyone just says automatically, ‘We’re going to do this.’ Because it’s pretty hard to go back from something where you tell everyone you’re going from 40 hours a week to 30 [and then] say, ‘Sorry, you’re going back to 40 again.’”

In 2018, British Columbia company Beelineweb saw success in deciding to make the shift to four days of work per week.

For those organizations seriously contemplating the move, there are many factors that must be considered before a drastic schedule change is put in place.

“Is it going to be a compressed workweek, four 10-hour days? Or is it truly going to be what they’re piloting in Iceland, in Japan and Scotland where it’s not a compressed workweek [but] you’re actually reducing the workweek to 28 or 30 hours. That’s a very important distinction,” says Carreau.

Employers will also have to look at specific positions and how they might change, she says.

“You’re going to need to write job descriptions; you can’t just hope that you can take people’s jobs and just squish them into less hours and hope you’re going to get the same results and then still see the benefits, like increased happiness and lower stress and all those pieces, employee retention improving. You’re not going to see those benefits if you literally just say, ‘You’re working for less hours, but everything else stays the same.’”

After experimenting with a four-day work week in a country notorious for overwork, Microsoft Japan said sales per employee rose 40 per cent  compared with the same month last year in 2019.

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