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Date posted: 13th February 2023

13th February 2023

The Future of Work: Will the 4-Day Week Go Mainstream?

The Future of Work: Will the 4-Day Week Go Mainstream?

In recent years, the concept of the four-day workweek has been gaining traction as a revolutionary way to improve work-life balance and increase overall happiness.

Many people today feel overworked and stressed, and the idea of having an extra day to rest and recharge is becoming increasingly appealing. 

However, for many employees, the four-day week remains a pipe dream, for now…

In this article, Joanna York asks ‘How widespread could the four-day workweek really be?’

From the article from BBC Worklife:

In the US and Ireland, a six-month trial among 33 volunteer companies in 2022 showed a positive impact on company performance, productivity and employee wellbeing. Employees working the shortened week reported less stress and fatigue, plus improved work-life balance and satisfaction. The 27 companies that submitted a final survey rated the trial a nine out of 10.

In a 2022 UK trial of 70 firms, 86% of companies said the four-day week was such a success, they planned to keep it in place after the pilot ended. They cited benefits such as increased productivity and significant financial savings for employees on transport and childcare. Similar trials in Belgium, Spain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have thrown up equally promising results for companies. And – unsurprisingly – employees seem especially keen to make shorter working weeks the norm.

Yet despite the overwhelmingly positive data, a four-day workweek still seems out of reach for many workers. Tech workers in agile, forward-thinking companies might hope for such a benefit in the near future, but it is harder to envisage the same change for schoolteachers or office workers in more traditional companies. Ultimately, some industries and deeply entrenched work cultures mean the four-day workweek may not be realistic for all employees – at least for now.

Finding the right fit

Technology and office-based industries have made the greatest inroads into reducing work hours so far. 

“It is really taking off as a notable trend in areas like tech, software, ICT [internet communication technology], finance and professional services – knowledge-based roles that used to be primarily office-based, but are now in many cases are hybrid or remote,” says Joe O’Connor, director and co-founder of the Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence, based in Toronto. 

While a mindset of agility and innovation is often baked into such companies, they also have an advantage in terms of easy, time-saving solutions. Measures such as introducing meeting-free days can enable employees to focus purely on productivity and radically reduce work hours, while concurrently maintaining output – something far easier to do in nimble organisations.

We have seen very successful examples everywhere, from non-profits to manufacturing companies, to even hospitality – Joe O’Connor

In other sectors, shortening the working week is possible, but requires re-thinking long-established norms. Consulting and law, for instance, are often organised around the concept of the billable hour – meaning less work automatically equals less income. But such cultures can change, believes O’Connor: “We’re starting to see examples of law firms moving to four-day weeks by switching from billing by the hour to billing by project value, or by reducing their non-billable overheads so that their teams are more focused on client work.” 

The viability of this shortened workweek for companies in these less-flexible industries may also look different than what other, more nimble firms and sectors are able to do.

For instance, “if [these firms] close on Friday and give everyone the same day off, that makes coordination with clients, suppliers and the rest of the economy harder”, says Pedro Gomes, author of Friday is the new Saturday, and coordinator of an upcoming Portuguese government trial of the four-day workweek. “The alternative is to give different people different days off, so you maintain working five days, but then you need communication processes in teams to be able to deal with days when colleagues are not there.” 

As such, while collaborative workplaces like advertising agencies might choose for all employees to take the same day off to better enable team coordination, industries that rely on trade throughout the week, like hospitality and service, may establish processes for salaried, non-shift workers to take off different days. In this way, many experts believe the four-day workweek can adapt to suit most industries. “We have seen very successful examples everywhere,” adds O’Connor, “from non-profits to manufacturing companies, to even hospitality.”

Entrenched culture 

In the current workplace, some important predictors of whether an organisation is likely to successfully implement a shorter working week may be company size and culture. So far, few major international companies have run trials of the four-day workweek.

Despite positive results from a trial by Microsoft in Japan and Unilever in New Zealand, other major corporations have been slow to follow suit. “Large companies have the financial capacity to make the change, but much more rigid structures,” says Gomes. “In practice, what we see is more small- and medium companies trialling the four-day workweek because they are more agile, and they usually have a CEO or a founder that has a very good picture of how it would impact the whole business.”

In other words, leaders of smaller firms may have less red tape to deal with, and find it easier to forecast how widespread change will impact the company overall than leaders in sprawling global organisations with more labyrinthian, layered structures. 

But in companies of all sizes, a certain type of manager could also be resistant changing entrenched norms – a significant barrier to the implantation of shorter weeks. Although the global movement in support of the four-day week is gathering pace, it is not yet a mainstream work practice, and undertaking such progressive change requires a high level of trust between leaders and workers. If managers don’t trust that employees can make a success of the change, they are unlikely to want to even test it. (Notably, productivity-related trust issues have been a major problem for managers throughout the pandemic.) 

“The biggest barrier to companies introducing four-day workweeks is likely a combination of entrenched culture and resistant bosses,” says Benjamin Laker, professor at Henley Business School, in Reading, UK. “Some managers may view the shorter workweek as reducing their control, or making it more difficult to manage employees.” In other words, risk-averse managers might question why they would shake up a system that’s already working.

In cases where four-day workweeks have proven unpopular among employees, a common issue has been reports of managers intensifying performance measurement, monitoring and productivity pressures. So, although many workers cite better wellbeing in some areas, the result of these added elements can spike worker stress levels. “If an organisation culturally doesn’t have that trust but instead has a very top down, centralised decision-making structure, they would probably struggle to make this work,” adds O’Connor.

Although the global movement in support of the four-day week is gathering pace, it is not yet a mainstream work practice, and undertaking such progressive change requires a high level of trust between leaders and workers

Other organisations for which four-day workweeks are likely off the table are hourly- and service-based – like restaurants, retail and healthcare – where a shorter workweek and subsequently fewer shifts ultimately means lower compensation. Although workers in these industries would likely experience similar benefits from reduced workloads, creating a pathway to less labour may be impossible, if it means losing out on pay.

The new normal

Even facing resistance from some leaders, experts say it is likely the four-day week will become more mainstream. 

In sectors that are already welcoming the shift, the 32-hour week is emerging as “a as a tool for competitive advantage in terms of talent, attraction and retention”, says O’Connor. “You could see a scenario in tech where by 2026, not offering a four-day week is almost a competitive disadvantage.”

And the more companies that make the switch, the more others who have not yet made the move may feel pressure to do so. “It’s hard to implement a four-day week when the rest of the economy is organized in a five-day week,” says Gomes, “but the moment you have the job market coordinating on a four-day week, then it forces the rest of the economy.” 

Even so, such widespread societal change would take “many years”, he says, and some industries will inevitably be left until last. Schools, for example, might struggle to implement a four-day week for full-time staff unless parents were already working such arrangements en masse.

There is also the possibility that companies will turn to other less drastic measures than a four-day week. “I predict that no-meeting days, flexible work hours and other innovative approaches to work-life balance will become standard practice in the near future,” says Laker.

For now, the shorter workweek may not be widespread, but there’s momentum around the globe to keep the experiment going. In 2023, trials of the four-day workweek are planned or ongoing in Australia, Spain, Scotland and more.

“There’s an element of ‘the genie’s out of the bottle’. We’re not going back to the way we were working pre-pandemic,” says O’Connor. “The four-day week is not going to be 100% of the economy, much like the five-day week is not wholly representative of the economy now, but it certainly could become the new normal.”

Read the full article, here.

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