Toward a Four Day Work Week
By Jerry Brownstein
In recent decades globalization, automation, digitization and outsourcing have drastically changed the nature of work. Yet we still cling to a schedule for workers that was designed to
fit the way the economy was a century ago. It may finally be time for that to change. Companies
in various countries have been experimenting with using a four day week for their employees, in the hope that it will improve both profits and worker contentment. Interest in this concept was heightened by the fact that many people had to work from home due to the Covid restrictions. This gave them and their employers a new perspective on how to develop a healthier vision for the future balance of work and leisure. Over the past few years a number of businesses have tried different ways to shorten work time while maintaining productivity, and now several progressive governments have started to seriously look into this situation as well.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon has introduced a program “to allow companies to explore the benefits of a four day working week”, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has supported a similar initiative. Iceland has made great progress in bringing this concept to reality, but it is here in Spain where the shorter work week is having its most significant evaluation. Spain became the world’s first country to give it a fully comprehensive test with a pilot project that was launched in September 2021.
Several hundred Spanish companies have voluntarily taken part by reducing their employees’ working week to 32 hours while keeping their salaries the same. There will
be flexibility as some workers will work four full days, whilst others might prefer to spread their 32 hours across five days. The government will compensate participating businesses for any higher costs incurred by the changes. This investment will be financed through Spain’s share of the EU Corona Virus Recovery Fund, and could cost up to 50 million euros.
Previous experiences with a four day week have been promising. When Microsoft Japan tried it in 2019, their productivity increased by 40%, and 92% of their employees said they were happier. Spain’s tech firm Software Delsol began using a four day week in 2020, and their absentee ratedropped 28% whilst revenues rose by 25%. But the new Spanish government plan is something on an altogether different level – a nationwide, government-backed program aimed more at improving public health than profits. If this is successful it could have a positive impact around the world. This type of innovative initiative is important in our modern world where the internet has blurred the work-life distinction – a trend that was accelerated by the pandemic. “The four-day week has never been tested on this level,” says Héctor Tejero, political coordinator of Más País, the left-wing party that put forward the proposal. “Until now there has only been fragmented evidence and research from different countries.”
Previous to this Spanish program, the most extensive test of shorter working hours had occurred in the small country of Iceland. In response to demands from labour unions and grassroots organizations for a better work-life balance, the Icelandic government conducted a series of trials between 2015 and 2019 to test the efficacy of a shorter work week. The trials involved various industries, and several different ways of reducing work time without cutting wages. The results were extremely positive as workers reported being happier, healthier, less stressed and with more time for enjoyment. From the employers’ side, there was no drop-off in productivity, and in some industries it actually increased. The Icelandic government concluded that working shorter hours not only improved workers’ morale, but it also spurred them to use their time at work more efficiently. They were happy to have more time and energy to do things in their personal lives, and these positive feelings made them better workers. The results of these trials led to a complete restructuring of the work force in Iceland. By 2021, 86% of the country’s workers had either moved to shorter working hours, or had the right to negotiate for less hours. “Employees are not only happier but they work more effectively” In virtually every instance where a shorter week has been tried the benefits for workers have been substantial. They have more time for personal life and family, plus more energy for professional development, restorative hobbies and exercise. This growing trend has a lot of momentum, and many large companies are getting on board. The consumer goods giant Unilever is testing a four dayweek in New Zealand by giving their staff 20% less working hours while keeping them at full pay. According to Nick Bangs, the managing director, “The old ways of working are outdated. Essentially, this is about a holistic understanding of how work and life fit together in a way that improves mental and physical wellbeing.” Businesses around the world are discovering that by switching to a four day week their employees are not only happier, but they work more effectively with less distractions. It’s a win-win situation that
brings increased productivity and creativity; improved recruitment and retention; less burnout, and a more balanced life for workers - all without cutting salaries or sacrificing customer service. A typical example of how this feels in practice comes from the online publishing company 3D Issue, which moved to a four day week in 2020. CEO Paul McNulty says that before making the change he gave his employees the option of a pay rise or shortened working hours, and they voted in favour of the latter. The results were immediate: “You instantly saw happier people, and happy people work better.” It sounds like this may be an idea whose time has come.