Is the Post-Pandemic World Heading Towards a Four-Day Work Week?

The-four-day-workweek

A three-day off might just become the norm in the near future

Amidst the increase in unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employers have been considering flexible workplace models that keep the costs low and productivity high.

The four-day work week is one such model. It offers employers an opportunity to stagger attendance and keep their employees safe without losing productivity. The shorter work week model could benefit employers by reducing their utility costs while improving employees’ work-life balance at the same time.

Before jumping into a discussion on how beneficial this new model might be, let us take a look at the origins of its recent popularity.

The origins of the four day work week

Between 2015 and 2019, trials of a four-day work week were conducted in Iceland. The trials studied more than 2,500 workers or about 1% of the country’s working population.

Researchers found that reducing the number of work hours, while keeping employees at the same pay scale increases their productivity. This meant that even when the employees did not spend as much time on their work, they still delivered the same amount of output.

Workers reported feeling less stressed and burned out during the trials. The improved work-life balance also made it possible for the employees to spend more time with their families and on activities that interest them.

These findings motivated worker unions in the country to negotiate a new working pattern with their employers. As of 2021, 86% of Iceland’s workforce has moved to shorter hours for the same pay. The success of these trials has motivated other countries to consider the benefits of the four-day workweek. Spain is piloting its own studies on the topic to combat the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pros and cons of reducing working hours

Increased productivity

As mentioned above, the trials in Iceland have revealed an increase in productivity due to reduced working hours. Other experiments on the four-day workweek model have also seen positive results. In 2019, Microsoft trialed the idea in their Japan offices and saw a 40% increase in productivity.

Flexible work schedules

The model is fairly flexible, allowing companies to adjust how they want to plan the workweek. Some, like the social media marketing platform Buffer, have begun working from Monday to Thursday. Others, like the workflow management solutions company Unito, have given their employees the option of working on weekends instead of weekdays.

Reduced gender disparity

Besides benefiting the employers, the model might reduce gender disparities in the workforce as well. When women give birth, their income often takes a hit. One of the primary reasons behind this is that, post childbirth, women start to work fewer hours because of social pressures to prioritize childcare. The four-day workweek gives them the ability to have an additional day with their children without losing their footing at work.

Lowered carbon emissions

One of the most significant benefits of the four-day workweek is a reduction in carbon footprint. In May 2021, a report commissioned by the 4-Day Week Campaign suggests that reducing working hours can reduce carbon emissions by cutting down the electricity consumption of office spaces.

Not all industries can adopt it

While the four-day workweek model seems to be beneficial for all, many industries cannot adopt it. Most of the workers in the hospitality and transportation industries cannot take the extra day off because their work cannot be condensed into four days.

An expensive risk

Perhaps the most glaring drawback of the model is the risk of workers failing to meet their workplaces’ requirements. In the 1990s, Sweden conducted several experiments towards a six-hour workday with full pay. These experiments proved to be too expensive to sustain in the long run and thus eventually had to be shut down.

Lack of clarity on long-term results

Not everything about this new work model is positive. The increased productivity, as seen in trials of the four-day workweek, might not be sustainable.

The work units involved in the Iceland trials were volunteers and fully aware that they were being studied. Their knowledge of the trial could have resulted in them unconsciously working towards the intended result.

Another factor to consider is the method used to increase productivity. Intensive working schedules can result in higher productivity but would ultimately result in a higher chance of burnout. To avoid this, companies could improve their equipment and adopt smart working practices.

How the model will play out over time requires further research and long-term experimentation. A headfirst dive into the four-day workweek might not be possible for all organizations. However, as time progresses, we might end up with more flexible workplaces adopting iterations of the model as they see fit.

Header image courtesy of Unsplash

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