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An idea whose time has come: the four-day workweek

Many in favor of the four-day workweek envision

Many in favor of the four-day workweek envision a more fulfilled (and rested) community. Credit: Boston Globe via Getty Images

The four-day workweek’s moment has arrived. With California Congressman Mark Takano’s introduction of legislation to reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours, awareness of a shorter workweek — and enthusiasm for it — is gaining. And so is the skepticism around it.

Initial skepticism is a reasonable response to a paradigm shift in how we think about work. American work culture has been defined by underlying ideals of career as identity, workaholism, aspirations for continuous growth and a relentless focus on creating shareholder value. It is not easy to untether ourselves from the only reality we know.

And yet, if there were ever a time for a paradigm shift, this is it. For so many, the muscles of resilience and adaptation have strengthened over the past 18 months with every challenge brought on by the pandemic and other global crises. The rapid, significant transition across industries to working from home provided evidence that we can adapt quickly in response to changing conditions. Now, we have an opportunity to exercise these muscles to intentionally evolve from outdated conceptions of what work must look like.

For leaders of organizations and teams, the shift to a four-day workweek requires re-imagining standard operating procedures, increasing innovation and, perhaps most importantly, trusting in employees.

Four-day workweek pilots are emerging across the globe, with some companies now shifting from the pilot phase to implementing the policy permanently. Microsoft Japan, Unilever New Zealand and Kickstarter represent just a few of a growing number of organizations exploring the four-day workweek.

Beyond the U.S., political leaders are voicing support for the concept. Last year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern endorsed employers implementing a four-day workweek to help stimulate domestic tourism in response to industry downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In February of this year, the Spanish government agreed to test a 32-hour workweek pilot without cutting workers’ pay. Ireland and Scotland also have trials planned.

Proponents cite many benefits, including reduced burnout, improved physical and mental health, increased gender equity, and positive environmental impacts. It is easy to imagine what we might do with an additional day — spend time with family and friends, pursue a hobby, enroll in classes, become politically engaged, sleep. Many in favor of the four-day workweek envision a more fulfilled (and rested) community.

Pilot findings show increased productivity as well. Microsoft Japan saw a 40% increase in productivity (measured in sales per employee) in their 2019 pilot, and New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian, a trust management company, reported gains of 20%. Among companies that have adopted a four-day week, nearly two-thirds report increased productivity.

Some leaders will see the research and be convinced that a pilot in their organization is worthwhile. Others will resist the idea. Leaders should get curious about any resistance that arises. What theories or beliefs are at the root of their concerns? Many leaders were taught that face-time with employees is the only way to ensure accountability, productivity and teamwork. Less face-time, which is inherent to the four-day workweek model (and work-from-home arrangements), can feel to some like a loss of control. The leaders we need today lean into this discomfort and make decisions that will propel their organizations to be the best for their employees, their clients, their communities and the world.

While each organization will need to find what works for them, doing so can be a productive exercise. Let employees work out the details rather than trying to "solve" the four-day workweek challenge from the top down. Perpetual Guardian asked employees to propose their own productivity measures, including how they and their teams would increase productivity, and to coordinate time off. Awin, a Berlin-based tech firm, saw 80 employees volunteer for task forces to ensure that their switch to a four-day workweek went smoothly. Those who are closest to the work and potential challenges are often closest to the solutions. The website www.4dayweek.com also offers many resources to help companies design a four-day workweek pilot.

For more than a century, economists have predicted that accelerating technological advances would enable highly developed countries to dramatically scale back working hours. Let’s step off the treadmill of ever-increasing work and rebalance in the way our bodies, communities, and environment need to regenerate.

Leah Hancock is the lead associate at Organizational Performance Group (OPG) where her work centers on helping people work together better.

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