The four-day workweek: a possible new norm after the coronavirus pandemic

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, companies have been forced to experiment with telework options and variable scheduling to keep their businesses running. As such measures are proving to be successful so far, there now exists the possibility of alternate work arrangements persisting even after the health crisis is over. Aside from seeing more employees work from home, could we also see an eventual shift to a four-day workweek, and consequently, the end of the five-day workweek?

What the research says

Research has shown that productivity does not decline when employees work fewer hours. In fact, it may even increase, and by a significant value too. Such was the case when Microsoft experimented with four-day workweeks at its Japan office. Last year, the company decided to make every Friday a paid holiday, which meant employees had three-day weekends to look forward to every week. It also encouraged less physical meetings in the office in favor of more online correspondence.

The result? A 40% increase in productivity, as well as a 23% decrease in electricity costs and a 58% decrease in printing paper use. Essentially, the employees were forced to manage their time more effectively so they could fit all of their tasks into the shorter workweek. This meant cutting down on time-wasting practices, holding 30-minute vs. hour-long meetings, etc.


Similar results were seen for the Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company that manages trusts, wills, and estate planning. It experimented with a four-day workweek after being inspired by research that showed employees were only truly productive for about three hours a day. Andrew Barnes, the company's CEO, decided to give its employees a day off each week under the theory that the compressed work time would make them more focused on their jobs.

"I had read an article by an economist about surveys in the UK and Canada showing that employees were productive between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half hours a day," he told Forbes. "I thought, 'Why is that? And is it happening in my company? Would they change their behaviors so productivity wouldn’t fall? I said, 'Why don’t we try?'"

The results of that experiment showed not only a 20% increase in productivity, but also a 6% increase in revenue, a 12.5% increase in profitability, and a 27% reduction in work-related stress. The employees were working hard, but they were also mentally and emotionally happier. Seeing these benefits, the company made the permanent switch to a four-day workweek.


These examples prove that productivity is not guaranteed just because employees are present at the office. An employee could be there for eight hours or more, but that does not necessarily mean he or she is working for all of that time. Productivity is guaranteed when you place trust in your employees, give them fair options, and cater to their mental and emotional well-being.

"[A four-day workweek] is not an issue people should be afraid of raising with their boss," added Barnes. "The research is pretty clear—companies get productivity improvements and see fewer sick days. If you go to your boss making an economic argument, not just a work-life balance argument, any sensible businessman or woman should be receptive."

Of course, old habits are difficult to break for many employers. Amy Balliett, the CEO of Killer Visual Strategies (which is a creative agency that adopted four-day workweeks in 2017), believes that most companies are reluctant to make the switch not because they don't trust their employees, but because they lack trust in the process.


"They’re so used to a very specific traditional process of work that they’re worried about what happens when that process shifts," Balliett told Fast Company. "I think what we’re about to see, as all of these companies that have been set in that tradition for so long are forced out of it, that there’s going to be a new level of trust and a new willingness to consider alternatives to the traditional going-to-the-office, nine-to-five."

Coronavirus: rethinking how we work

With employees now working from home and adopting compressed schedules due to the coronavirus, alternate work arrangements like a four-day workweek may seem more feasible in post-pandemic scenarios. In fact, Barnes believes it may even be the key to survival for many companies that are struggling with the current economic downturn.

"Many businesses are considering or implementing reduced hours and reducing pay as well," he says. "The methodology of the four-day week trial is to have a safe, renewed focus on productivity. The process eliminates much of the unproductive business whilst reinforcing trust between employers and employees. Businesses who do this will have a better chance of surviving this temporary crisis and maintaining employment for their people."


Of course, it is unlikely that companies that do survive will maintain that perspective. Once the pandemic is over, most of them will probably revert back to "business as usual," with the belief that the five-day workweek is the best way to achieve financial stability. They may even encourage their employees to work overtime in order to accelerate the "catch up" process.

But clearly, our world will not be the same once we get past this health crisis. We will have the opportunity to make a lot of changes based on what we have learned from this experience and that includes rethinking the way we work. This period of working from home and working fewer hours may actually lead companies to make lasting long-term changes in the future.

"The coronavirus crisis, which is enforcing the use of remote working and ways of engaging, will demonstrate to many businesses that employees can be trusted to deliver productivity without being in the workplace," says Barnes. "This is an essential building block to how we have a reduced-hours workplace once this trouble has blown over."


The four-day workweek in Canada

Recently, Sanna Marin, the new Prime Minister of Finland, said she might want to implement a four-day workweek consisting of six-hour days for her country. She explained that "people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, [and] hobbies" and that it could very well be "the next step for us in working life." Could the same considerations be taken for Canada?

According to an Angus Reid Poll, 47% of Canadians support a move from a 40-hour to a 30-hour workweek. While there would be several factors in play and various challenges to overcome, Eddy Ng, a management professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, thinks it is an achievable feat for most companies.

“You can’t test a four-day workweek in retail ... That would be like the kiss of death," he told Global News. "All it takes is a tipping point when enough employers do it ... Now it becomes, in order to attract the best and the brightest, I have to do it, too. Microsoft is doing this. I’m a competitor. I have to do it, too."

Photo by Waterfront Toronto

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