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Redefining Work: The Global Shift Towards a Four-Day Workweek

Redefining Work: The Global Shift Towards a Four-Day Workweek

In an era marked by rapid technological advancements and evolving societal norms, the traditional five-day workweek is facing growing scrutiny. Around the world, discussions are taking place about the possibility of transitioning to a more flexible four-day workweek. This article delves into the global movement advocating for this change, with a focus on its implications for the United States. We will set the context for bringing the four-day workweek concept and will navigate through some statistics and research on the topic from the employees’ perspectives to experts’ opinions about its progress and future ahead.

How the Concept Started

The concept of a four-day workweek first arose in the 70s, but the idea of working fewer hours while keeping the same salary remained an implausible wish for most workers for decades. However, after the pandemic, the increase of remote work, and the economy’s performance challenged the nine-to-five workday. Currently, hundreds of businesses around the U.S., Canada, Australia, UAE, and Europe among others, are slowly turning this into a reality for their employees.

Mostly from 2020, numerous companies around the world have tested the shorter workweek, with the United Kingdom being the country with the world’s major trial. Since then, several organizations in other countries – including the United States—have decided not to return to their usual five-day workweek. 

Sadly, while this idea is now more widespread and progressing in developed countries, there is still a lot to go for undeveloped such as those in LATAM where it seems there is not much empathy about work-life balance for employees. For instance, in Colombia, until mid-2023 the workweek was 48 hours, and now there is a law in place to progressively reduce it by one hour per week to 42 hours by 2026. Nonetheless, 42 is very far from what is being discussed in more progressive countries around the world.

The Global Context 

Nations across the globe are experimenting with alternatives to the traditional workweek structure. Countries like Iceland have successfully implemented shorter workweeks, demonstrating improved employee satisfaction, reduced stress, and maintained or increased productivity. Spain, New Zealand, and Japan have also explored related concepts, with some businesses reporting boosted employee morale and enhanced work-life balance.

To set the context, the five-day workweek has been part of the labor law in the US for almost 100 years since Henry Ford standardized it in 1926. From this point onwards, there have been many intents of officializing a law that regulates the four-day workweek but although it has been discussed in several states across the country, it has not been approved or officialized yet. All progress made in this matter has been due to companies that have willingly implemented the changes.

In spite of this, workers who experienced a four-day workweek have stated they would never return to five days unless there was a significant salary increase. The non-profit organization 4 Day Week Global (4WDG), in partnership with researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College, and University College Dublin, led an initiative to run a six-month pilot, which ran for most companies from April through October 2022, and was based on a model that works on a 100-80-100 (workers receive 100% of their pay for 80% of the time and maintain 100% productivity).

The two pilots which were based on six-month trials and included more than 900 workers across 33 businesses in the U.S. and Ireland, tried this model, and none of them expressed their intention to go back to a five-day model. This has been the world’s largest testing to assess the shortened workweek so far. In addition to many other progressive impacts, this study showed that self-reported levels of performance went up while burnout and fatigue went down.

According to TIME, 2023 is the year in which the four-day workweek has become a reality, for several reasons: 

1.It’s undeniably good for employees

When working just four days a week, having an extra day off can be an opportunity to spend more time with family and friends, to practice sports or a hobby, or to do anything employees enjoy. This can make them feel happier and will ultimately affect their job performance positively. This contributes to work-life balance and to better mental and physical health. 

2.It’s good for business

An extra day off, and a shorter work week can be a powerful factor to attract talent. High employee motivation and increased employee productivity will have a positive impact on the companies.

3.Governments are paying attention

Although many countries are still lagging in advancing to a four-day workweek as a norm in all organizations, progress has been made in some European countries. In Iceland, trials first started from 2015 to 2019 to reduce the workweek from 40 to 35 or 36 hours without reducing the salary for 2,500 workers. This initiative proved to be so successful that once the results were advertised, associations began advocating for a more widespread adoption. This led to a change in 2021 where 86% of the country’s workers had either reduced their workweek or had the right to do so. In 2019 the municipality of Odsherred in Denmark switched its 300 public employees to a Monday-Thursday schedule (without reducing their total hours overall), and in 2022, the UAE cut their workweek for public employees to 4.5 days.

Notwithstanding, significant changes are yet to be implemented, for instance, a bill before the California state legislature that required companies with over 500 employees to pay overtime after 32 hours a week was hindered and has not been taken up again since. On the other hand, while a reform that guarantees the right of employees to appeal for a four-day workweek came into effect in Belgium in 2022, that measure only reduces the workweek rather than the number of total hours that remain the same.

4.There’s no going back

Even without wider legislation needed to make the shift worldwide, the number of organizations and governments willing to try a four-day workweek is rising. The idea of making the switch is not as unfamiliar as it used to be. From trials made by 4DWG in 2022, 93% said they would either continue with the four-day week or were planning to, even though they had not made a final decision, but none said they would not implement it at all. 

The US Perspective: The challenges of implementing a four-day workweek

In the US, where the usual five-day workweek has long been the norm, the discussion around a four-day workweek is gaining traction. While many Americans still adhere to the 40-hour workweek, the arrival of remote work and changing attitudes towards work-life balance have flickered interest in exploring unconventional arrangements. However, the prospect of altering a deeply ingrained work culture brings forth a range of viewpoints.

Life is changing and so are the expectations and working lifestyle. According to the Hill, more than half of US employers are now ready to try a four-day workweek. A poll of 976 business leaders by and the job-seekers website, found that 20% of employers already have a four-day workweek while another 41% said they plan to put into practice a four-day workweek, at least temporarily.

If a four-day week becomes the norm, it would mark the foremost change to the US work schedule since the five-day workweek was adopted by Henry Ford in 1926. However, it cannot be said that this would be the deepest change in the American workplace. This distinction perhaps belongs to remote work, a movement that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic and shows no signs of dwindling. But there remain conflicting ideas as to whether the shorter workweek will provide enough time for workers to perform and finish the same tasks they would complete in the longer work week, and whether the salary should remain the same or should be reduced. 

Studies have found that many workers consider other benefits over payment to remain in the workplace. Some may leave a company for another that offers a significant increase in salary for the same number of hours. This could be a disadvantage for smaller companies that might not be in a position to match the salary leading them to find other strategies to retain talent. One of the strategies can be a reduction in the working time while keeping the same salary (a 32-hour/four-day workweek with no reduction in salary). This is something that many workers would prefer rather than switching to another company just for more money.

The debate about a four-day workweek hinges on whether the policy implies a decrease in hours or a conventional 40-hour week condensed to fewer days. In this sense, companies are adopting different positions. The debate leans on whether a workday should be 4 days a week working 10 hours a day or keeping the same 8 hours a day, thus working only 32 hours a week. For many people, working 10 hours per day could result in added stress and less productivity. Nevertheless, it seems that companies are trying out both approaches and figuring out the best.

Even though experts have declared that equal work can be performed in the shorter week mostly due to higher levels of productivity, they also state that the prospect of federal legislation protecting a four-day workweek standard is extremely implausible in the US, let alone in other countries. Some others have expressed the opposite, arguing that there is momentum in the market as more companies are implementing it pressing the government to act but all is still uncertain.

Currently, the majority of companies in the US still operate on a five-day workweek, but some activists are pushing through pilots for a 32-hour, four-day workweek without cutting salaries. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted in spring this year shows that 75% of workers would prefer working 10 hours for 4 days versus 8 hours for 5. Similarly, 73% say they would rather work five days a week at full-time pay than four days for less pay, a sign that shows that most workers are unwilling to sacrifice income for a shorter workweek, the bets are split.

The world is changing and so are the lifestyles of employees and employers in every corner of the planet. As the world evolves, so must our approach to work. The idea of a four-day workweek challenges established norms offering the potential for enhanced productivity, employee satisfaction, and work-life balance. While the shift is not without its challenges, the global movement towards shorter workweeks signals a growing recognition that the way we work deserves a closer examination. The US stands at a crossroads, poised to embrace change and redefine the workweek for a new era.

Now, it is possible to work from home regardless of where a business is located further allowing people from different nationalities, languages, and cultures to work together. More and more, the world has become smaller and the work should be based and measured on results and not on the time spent to achieve those goals. The aim is to become more efficient and work fewer hours so that employees can have more time to spend with family or undertake other activities for leisure, entertainment, or learning development. There is still a long way to go, but it seems that we are advancing and the time to make a change is here.

Reneris is a specialized executive search and management consulting firm that provides professional services to clients seeking a high-caliber consultative partner. We have successfully placed candidates in leadership positions in the Real Estate (Hospitality, Multi-Family Housing, Senior Living) and Non-Profit sectors.

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