Working Smarter?

How employers are responding to calls for a four-day work week

The economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic saw the return of a decade-long trend in the U.S. labor market — an increase in resignations as a proportion of total employment. This phenomenon, which broke records in late 2021 and has remained at historically high levels, has been dubbed “the Great Resignation.” As unemployment rates remain low and workers readily leave their current jobs for more attractive ones, employers have become increasingly forced to rethink their recruitment strategies.

Graph: nationwide resignations as a percent of total employment (seasonally adjusted)
Rises steadily from 2012 to 2020, large dip in 2020 followed by steep rise, evens out and begins to decline slightly in 2022
Data via the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Many such strategies revolve around allowing workers more flexibility to choose where and when they work, but most companies still expect full-time employees to dedicate five eight-hour days per week to work. One more ambitious proposal that has begun to gain traction is a four-day work week. Two common proposals for four-day work weeks involve either condensing the traditional 40-hour week into four 10-hour days or shifting to a 32-hour week of four eight-hour workdays.

Four-day work weeks have gained support from some labor groups and progressive blocs, but the concept remains rare. Still, about two thirds of Americans would prefer to switch to a four-day work week given the same pay, according to a 2021 poll by YouGov.

Joe O’Connor is a former union organizer and the CEO of 4 Day Week Global, an organization supporting businesses looking to shift to a four-day work week. The organization is currently facilitating pilot programs in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. According to O’Connor, during these pilots, “employees reported statistically significant changes such as less stress and burnout, better physical and mental health, more satisfaction with their lives and availability of time, and better and more sleep.”

Of the 41 companies in 4 Day Week Global’s U.K. pilot, 86% reported that they would be “likely” or “extremely likely” to consider retaining a four-day work week after the conclusion of the trial, and 95% reported similar or improved productivity. O’Connor also raised the example of British bank Atom, which experienced a 500% increase in job applications after switching to a four-day work week.

Still, only 15% of companies offered the option for at least part of the year in 2019, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. According to O’Connor, “many people like the concept [of a four-day work week] but argue that it wouldn’t be possible in their organization.”

The Atlanta-based technology firm NCR Corporation has also been experimenting with flexible working arrangements. Their current schedule for most office workers involves work-from-anywhere Mondays, in-person work on Tuesdays through Thursdays, and remote work on Fridays with no meetings scheduled. Patrice Graves, the company’s chief human resources officer, said that the company is “really listening… because we realize that one size doesn’t fit all.” NCR is also piloting a program to allow employees with “good performance” to work fully remotely for two weeks at a time.

Still, Graves said, the company is not currently considering the possibility of fully removing a workday from the calendar to provide employees with a four-day work week. As she put it, “change is hard.”

Graves also explained the company’s decisions as a direct response to economic factors. “Two or three months ago, before the economy started to slow down, employees could say ‘well I don’t want to [be required to work in the office], so I’m just gonna go across the street,’” she said.

Now that the company’s attrition rates have lowered despite the requirement of in-person work three days a week, the company feels that its current policies are working and sees little need to experiment with even more radical changes like a four-day work week.

Dr. Haizheng Li, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Economics, cited historical precedent for shortening working hours.

“In some developing countries, they used to have six-day work weeks. And then, of course, because of international… pressure, they moved to five-day work weeks,” he said.

Still, Li expressed skepticism that companies would be able to maintain their productivity under such a shift. In shortening employees’ work weeks, he said, companies will either have to reduce their labor expenses by cutting salaries or firing employees.

“If wages increase [per hour worked] and the productivity doesn’t catch up, then the employer will have to reduce their workforce,” he said. Li said he had not yet seen empirical research on four-day work weeks but pointed to the fact that wages tend to be lower for jobs with five-day weeks than six-day weeks when controlling for all other factors.

In addition to individual companies changing their working hours, some efforts have been attempted by governments. Li pointed to France’s shift to a 35-hour work week in 2000, under which companies are required to pay overtime to employees who work more than 35 hours in a week. Within the U.S., similar proposals have been introduced but gained less traction. Representative Mark Takano (D-CA) introduced the Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act in 2021, which would have similarly required employers to pay overtime to any employees who worked more than 32 hours in a week. The bill gained 17 cosponsors, all but one of whom were members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but did not move out of committee. A similar bill in the California State Legislature also died in 2022.

Despite the lack of Congressional support and a potentially loosening labor market, O’Connor remains optimistic that the four-day work week will catch on.

“It took decades for the five-day week to become the norm after it was first introduced, so we never expected the entire global economy to make the shift to a four-day week all at once,” he said. “As the evidence in favour of a four-day week grows, so too will its popularity.”

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