Americans have historically prided themselves on how much they work, treating burnout and exhaustion as a badge of honor, but employees and employers alike are beginning to see the mental and physical toll long hours take on an individual. The disruption to office life, brought on by Covid, has many companies, legislators, and employers rethinking the way they work and many employees demanding more flexibility and freedom. What was once a radical idea is now a real possibility. Could the four-day work week be the future?
Experiments on a Shorter Work Week
Iceland recently concluded a five-year long trial of the four-day work week and found that the shorter hours were an “overwhelming success.” They found the 2,500 workers studied to be happier, healthier, and equally, in some cases more, productive. The governments of Spain and Scotland are embarking on similar trials, and Japanese, British, Finnish, and New Zealand legislators have favorably looked upon the idea of a shortened work week.
In late July, California Congressman Mark Takano proposed a bill that would reduce the standard work week to 32 hours, pointing out that “pilot programs run by governments and businesses across the globe have shown promising results, as productivity climbed and workers reported better work-life balance, less need to take sick days, heightened morale and lower childcare expenses because they had more time with their family and children.”
Beyond the public sector, Kickstarter made headlines earlier in the pandemic for their move to a four-day work week, which they plan to continue in the coming year as a pilot. Chief Executive Aziz Hasan thinks the shortened work week gives workers a better work life balance and bolsters productivity. New-York based software company, Buffer, and Philadelphia-based group, Wildbit are trying their hand at a shorter schedule as well. And before the pandemic, Shake Shack and Microsoft Japan found success in testing out the four-day work week, with Microsoft’s Japanese trial seeing a 40% improvement in productivity.
Among those who found success in their experiments in scheduling, working in a focused way was critical. Working fewer hours means being more mindful of your time by avoiding distractions or unnecessary meetings — which typically take up a substantial portion of the traditional workweek.
Pandemic Cultural Shift Challenges Convention
Boston College professor of sociology, Juliet B. Schor, believes the four-day work week will grow in popularity as culture around work shifts because of the pandemic. “It has been very rapid [shift] from a culture that legitimized overwork and burnout to one that is critical of it,” said Schor. A four-day work week may even give employers an edge when it comes to attracting and retaining talent as a generation with new expectations enters the workforce.
For the sectors of America that are “always on,” such as banking and finance, the four-day work week might not be coming any time soon due to logistics. Schor, however, thinks that the middle class may soon see a shift in their schedule which will eventually spread across the workforce spectrum.