The Case for a Four-Day Work Week

Recently a New York Times headlined asked "Is the four-day work week finally within our grasp?" Kickstarter, Shake Shack and Unilever's New Zealand unit are among those that have experimented with the four-day workweek, or have announced plans to. And after an experiment in Iceland supported the idea that the system improves worker well-being without reducing overall output, a majority of the country's workers have now moved to shorter workweeks, or will gain the right to... Roughly 1% of Iceland's working population was involved in its trials of shorter workweeks for equal pay, which ran for several years starting in 2015. "The trials were successful," concluded a recent research report on the experiment. "Participating workers took on fewer hours and enjoyed greater well-being, improved work-life balance and a better cooperative spirit in the workplace — all while maintaining existing standards of performance and productivity...." And the extra day off means fewer commuting days, which saves time and reduces environmental impact.... Proponents of four-day weeks say the key is to rein in meetings. "You have better discipline around meetings. You're a lot more thoughtful in how you use technology," said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of "Shorter," a book about the four-day workweek. He also said that a shorter week requires workers to set aside time for focused work and refrain from email or other communications during that time. "To paraphrase William Gibson, the four-day week is already here for most companies," said Pang, an organizational strategy consultant in Menlo Park, California. "It's buried under a whole bunch of rubble of outmoded practices and bad meetings. Once you clear that stuff away, then it turns out the four-day week is well within your grasp." And now one commentator in Newsweek reports that 83% of U.S. workers favor a shorter work week. But there's also a business case for the change, since a Microsoft experiment with a four-day work week in Japan "led to a 40 percent improvement in productivity, as measured by sales per employee...." The strongest argument for a shorter work week is that it doesn't actually require a sacrifice. Although the average American works 8.8 hours a day, not much of this time is actually spent working. If a worker is in the office but isn't working, what is the purpose of them being there? Minutes spent chatting by the water cooler, checking social media and making snacks compound into hours that could be better spent elsewhere. As noted by the historian C. Northcote Parkinson, famous for "Parkinson's Law," work "expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." I think he's right. Deadlines focus work, and focused work is better work. It's the quality, and not the quantity, of our work that matters.... As we near the post-COVID juncture, I believe it's time to refocus our sights on the forgotten promise of the industrial revolution — to finally help employees find a better work-life balance and actually increase business' productivity and bottom line at the same time. Four great work days are always better than five average days. It's happening. "The coronavirus pandemic has sped up a transition into more flexible and diverse working hours around the world, opening up ways of working that were unthinkable just a few years ago," reports Reuters. (The traditional model of how we work has been broken," Meghana Reddy, vice president of video messaging service Loom, told the Reuters Next conference.") And an article in Forbes reminds us that last month Britain's Atom Bank adopted a four-day week for most of its 430 employees, reducing working hours to 34 hours per week from 37.5 hours without reducing pay. "There's even talk at the congressional level: U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill in July to reduce the standard work week from 40 hours to 32. The bill has 13 co-sponsors...." The four-day work week will take hold because it embodies the spirit of our times, because workers demand it, and because businesses that implement it will thrive... Years from now we will look back on our pre-pandemic work habits and lifestyles and wonder why we worked the way we did. We will cringe to recall how we sacrificed evenings and weekends and friendships and family to work all the time. We will ponder how we allowed ourselves to sink beneath relentless professional demands and digital distractions without even noticing we were drowning. The four-day work week is just one of the corporate experiments that will define the life-work revolution and ultimately the future of work.

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