The four-day workweek: is the US ready?
Apr 14, 2022
Do you dream about how great life would be if you had one extra weekend day? About all the things you could do if you had a bit more time to yourself every week? Well, you’re not the only one. After eight decades of the Fordian five-day workweek, now more than two-thirds of Americans confidently support shaving off a workday to focus on rest. The 40-hour system gave workers more time to focus on their personal lives and families, consequently boosting their productivity when at work - now it’s thought the shorter 32-hour workweek can be even more beneficial.
To understand the phenomenon of the four-day workweek and its feasibility in the US, we spoke to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less and Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less. Previously global strategy consultant and visiting professor, Pang now helps leaders and companies prepare for a four-day workweek with 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit community of professionals and academics aiming to spread awareness about four-day workweek practices and shape the future of work. So what is the four-day workweek movement really about? How has the movement evolved? Can the US be the next country to announce its switch to a shorter workweek? Let us guide you through it all.
The journey to a shorter working model
Before the implementation of Henry-Ford’s 40-hour workweek as a part of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, the concept of ‘work-life balance’ was very much not a thing. An average workweek of an American worker in the 19th Century would amount to 100 hours – and free weekends were only introduced in 1908. Though even back in the day, some had more radical ideas about the way work should be done, advocating for the importance of rest and strategic productivity. John Maynard Keynes in 1928, President Nixon in 1956, and President Carter in 1977 all preached the necessity and inevitability of a shorter workweek in the next decades.
How are their predictions seen nowadays? On the surface, not very promising. Over the years of the new millennium, work became much more than something that makes us richer – it has become a part of our identity. According to OECD, between 2010 and 2020, Americans put in an average of 1,767 hours per year – which is much more than a country’s average of 1,687 hours. With 2020 and the pandemic remote working, things got only worse. An average employee, already working 47 hours per week, witnessed an increase of 2,5 hours of work per day when working remotely. And as many as 25% of WFH Americans worked more than 60 hours per week.
Yet the four-day workweek is gaining momentum once again. More and more private companies show interest in shorter workweek models. Iceland and the UAE both shortened working hours in the public sector. Spain, Portugal, and France are some of the European countries to have implemented ‘the right to disconnect’. Belgian employees can request a four-day week trial for a period of six months since February 2022.
“The evolution of the four-day workweek can be described as a slow accumulation of examples over time,”’ said Pang. “As it always is, it takes a little while for movements like this to become aware of themselves and become widely known. That’s exactly what we see happening in the US.”
Pang mentions that the four-day movement has been around for a few years now – just very discreetly. “Even in 2018, there was a growing number of companies quietly moving to shorter workweeks or shorter hours.” As the word started spreading out, more and more businesses saw the shift as appealing. “In the several years since then, we have seen hundreds of companies in a variety of industries all over the world showing that it is possible to reduce working hours without cutting salaries or cutting expectations about output or customer satisfaction.”
“We have seen hundreds of companies in a variety of industries all over the world showing that it is possible to reduce working hours without cutting salaries or cutting expectations.”
A major factor in making the four-day workweek not only more visible but also more possible was the Covid-19 outbreak. “The pandemic encouraged companies to work on multiple aspects of their businesses that are actually very important to improve if you’re going to transition to a shorter workweek.” Automation, the use of technology, inner collaboration… They all need to be made more efficient for the working time to be cut short successfully. “The experience of moving to remote work so quickly and at such a large scale, also made clear to companies that if we really want to, or if we have to, we can change the way we work much more effectively and profoundly than we ever thought possible,” said Pang.
Fast-forward two years later, our approach to productivity and the work-life balance shifted significantly - and numbers show it. In 2021 alone, a record 47.4 million Americans handed in their resignation letters, fuelling labor shortages across the country. “Those millions of people who have left jobs have shown that they are tired of the so-called “business as usual” and have voted with their actions that they don’t want to go back to the work reality defined three years ago,” Pang explained. As of November 2021, 83% of Americans have indicated they are in favor of a four-day workweek.
What is a four-day workweek really about?
The movement seems to be evolving rather quickly – but what does the four-day model actually entail? “The four-day workweek is all about focusing on shorter bursts of intensive work, rather than very long hours, and layering those with periods of deliberate rest – like spending time on your hobbies, physical exercise, life admin, and so on,” said Pang.
Shaving one of the working days off pushes us to redefine the interwoven concepts of work and rest. “Work time and downtime should not be seen as competitors but as partners. We should not view rest as something we do only if the work is finished – nowadays, work is never finished.” This is not to say that we should prioritize one over another. Rather, the four-day workweek aims to cherish and optimize the relationship between the two. “Designing our days well will make it possible to rest in ways that help us recover more quickly, be more motivated and creative. In the long run, this can grant us more sustainable careers and better lives overall,” said Pang.
“Work time and downtime should not be seen as competitors but as partners (…) the four-day workweek aims to cherish and optimize the relationship between the two.”
How can such a four-day workweek be fruitful for both employees and the companies they work at?
Let’s break all of those benefits down.
- Less stress = improved health
Those who work four-day weeks are found to have higher levels of well-being and active disengagement, and are less prone to chronic burnout, with 78% admitting they feel happier and less stressed. “If you encourage people to work more intensively rather than for longer, you can get the same results for your business without burning the employees out and creating that stressful atmosphere,” Pang explains. Adding one more day to your weekend also means you have more time for all the things you always rush or neglect to do – “life admin”, hobbies, exercise, traveling, family.
- Employees revisiting their understanding of work
“Those highly motivated, ambitious employees who love their work can actually see a shorter workweek as a challenge. But in the end, it will give them a push to reinvent their professional why,” said Pang. Faced with a shorter period of work time, you need to pose yourself essential questions: Why do I spend so much time working? Why do I continue to stay late in the office? Why is it that I do what I do? “A personal challenge as such is every bit as interesting and rewarding as figuring out how to maximize your performance.”
- Increased collaboration
A shorter workweek favors collaboration and employee engagement. With less time to complete individual and group projects, treating work-life balance as a collective issue will become one of the driving factors of employee productivity in the company. Only through cooperation, the work will be done successfully.
- Standing out from the competition crowd
With over 100 companies currently implementing a shorter workweek, many businesses out there still run on the classic Fordian model. “As a company promising an alternative working system, you are able to compete for talent more effectively. From the point of view of a candidate, a four-day workweek stands out as something really interesting, makes your workplace much more unique than those of other companies out there,” explains Pang. In fact, 63% of businesses found it easier to attract talent after switching to the four-day model.
- Increased company resilience
Switching to the four-day model can also have great effects on companies’ retention rates, making them more resilient to labor market changes. Productive and satisfied employees who have more time to do things they love outside of work will be more willing to stay with the business for much longer. “This allows businesses to save money they would normally spend on the hiring process and recruiting fees. Plus, the longer you keep your loyal and experienced workers, the more resilient your business will become,” Pang says.
- More sustainable business model
Working for shorter can have a big environmental impact too – not only by reducing the amount of time you run all of your company equipment but also as employees have to commute to work only four out of five days of the week. Take the four-day work week trial conducted in the state of Utah – after ten months of closing the government office building on Fridays, the project saved over US$1.8m on energy and reduced its carbon emissions by 6,000 metric tons.
It’s about changing your mindset, not your workflow
Implementation is one of the main steps holding companies back from trialing the four-day workweek. But if we were to tell you that the shift is much easier to make than you imagine? Studies indicate that between social and technology-driven distractions, as well as poor organization, most workers are actually productive for an average of three hours - which means that we lose up to five hours of productive time every day when in the office.
“The four-day workweek is already here, buried underneath this organizational rubble.” Pang says. “Implementing core organizational changes will make it much easier for the new shorter system to become reality.”
So how can a company do that?
- Redesign the workday
Within the four-day model, time becomes valuable. “To make the switch effective and successful, the company should give everyone periods of deep-focus work, when they have every right to ignore all the slack channels and incoming email, and can concentrate just on the stuff that matters most,” explains Pang. Cut out what’s unnecessary, shorten what’s repetitive, automate what’s mundane. “Meetings should be made shorter, to only cover what’s necessary and not disrupt the flow of the workday.”
- Make communication more efficient
With fewer working hours, you need to be put more emphasis on communication and collaboration. There’s no time to waste, especially because of miscommunication and lack of organization. “You need to be able to communicate even the smallest, most administrative aspects of the job – people’s responsibilities, schedules, vacations, etc.,” says Pang. “In the shorter workweek, all processes need to be optimized.”
- Make smarter use of technology
Let’s face it – endless email notifications and Slack messages can oftentimes make us more distracted from the actual task that needs to be done. “Companies need to be more mindful of the ways such technologies and communication platforms are used. So use technology to augment those more mundane, less important processes - not to hamper your workers’ concentration and creativity.” Pang explains. He suggests reducing the number of communication channels used and messages sent or encouraging email checks only twice a day. “That way, you free up lots of valuable time that people can instead spend on doing more important work or moving on to more interesting projects – or that can be simply given back to workers in the form of a shorter workweek.”
It’s important to remember that a four-day workweek is not the only shorter solution available out there. “It all depends on the market. Companies that have to stay open and be accessible to clients five days a week may move to a shorter workday instead.” This might also be a better solution for those with families, Pang suggests. “Being able to leave at 3 pm might be more preferable than having Fridays off if you have to pick up kids from school every day.”
The bottom line? “No matter which approach you choose, a shorter workweek system makes it possible to implement a model that would benefit both the employees and the company equally.”
Is America ready for a change?
Looking at the American labor market, Pang believes that the shift is already here. “We have plenty of examples of firms across a variety of industries that have taken the shorter workweek model up already and have seen great success.” But private companies are not the only ones attracted to the four-day workweek – the idea is becoming more and more appealing to the public sector as well.
The US might not be as far ahead as Iceland and the UAE – but we are starting to see a more serious debate over what kinds of things the government ought to do to encourage a possible shorter workweek. “Little towns and villages, like New England, have actually been operating for only four days per week for decades now. And we have also seen some experiments on the state level – in Utah and Hawaii, for example.” Even this month, 35 companies in the US and Canada will trial working for 4 days per week for 6 months. The trial, organized by 4 Day Global, will see nearly 2,000 employees get one paid day off per week.
“I think Americans are ready for a four-day week. It’s the American government and the American economy that is a little further behind the idea,” Pang says. But it might catch up. “The popularity of the movement among workers is high and rising. The arguments against the four-day week are harder to maintain than they used to be. The number of reasons for companies to say “no” to a four-day workweek will continue to shrink. I believe that over the next couple of years we might seed a wider change in the way Americans work.”
“I think Americans are ready for a four-day week. It’s the American government and the American economy that is a little further behind the idea.”
In Pang’s view, Utah might be the first state to fully move into the four-day workweek. “Utah is not only a relatively small state in terms of population and government, but it has also proven to be culturally receptive to arguments in favor of a shorter business week.”, he says. New York and California, on the other hand, might find it harder to make the switch – though awareness of the benefits of the shorter workweek is already on the horizon. Last summer, Congressman Mark Takano of California introduced legislation amending the Fair Labor Standard Act and reducing the standard workweek in the state to 32 hours. We don’t know how long Congressman Takano will have to fight for the proposal to be implemented – but the effort itself indicates an underlying shift in the way Americans have begun to view work.
So what’s the future looking like? “Right now, we see a clear window of opportunity giving us a leeway to move to the future of work.”, says Pang. “Whether we will take this opportunity and turn it into something permanent or whether we will go back to back to the way things were, remains to be seen.”
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