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Balancing the Pros, Cons, and Practicalities of a Four Day Work Week

The four day work week is hot again. Could it really happen? Who is in favor and who isn't? Why do we work five days a week? Your questions answered here.

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the four day work week is hot again. could a 32-hour workweek happen?

The concept of a four day work week has been tossed about for a while; it’s a concept that seems to ebb and flow in popularity. Lately, perhaps boosted by Senator Bernie Sander’s (D-Vermont) introduction of a bill to enact a federal 32-hour work week with no loss in pay, it’s an idea that’s trending once again. The bill is called the “Thirty-Two Hour Workweek Act,” 

The impetus behind the bill is to reward American workers for the massive boost in productivity that artificial intelligence, automation, and new technology are driving. “Today, American workers are over 400 percent more productive than they were in the 1940s,” Sen. Sanders commented.

The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-California), a former labor union official, and Rep. Mark Takano (D-California). It has generated support from labor unions and advocacy groups. It calls for:

  • Reducing the standard work week from 40 to 32 hours over a four-year period.

  • Requiring overtime pay at 1.5 times an employee’s regular salary for work days longer than eight hours and double pay for work days longer than 12 hours. 

Other countries have had success with a four day work week model and there is evidence to suggest limited to no impact on productivity.

Download this free guide to learn the 10 HR metrics every company should track—plus 5 bonus metrics.

History of the four day work week

When working six days a week, eight hours a day (or more) was the norm in 1922, it was Edsel  Ford, then president of the Ford Motor Company, who pioneered advocating for a shortened work week. “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation,” he proclaimed. “The Ford Company has always sought to promote an ideal home life for its employees. We believe that in order to live properly, every man should have more time to spend with his family.”  The 40-hour work week was made law almost two decades later in 1940, and included a mandate that hourly workers be paid overtime for working more. 

Today, alongside Sen. Sanders, it’s the auto workers once again who are leading the charge in the United States. Striking UAW workers, now working up to 80 hours a week, are demanding a 32-hour work week, with 40 hours of pay. So far, without success. 

While the four day work week hasn’t yet taken hold in the United States, it has been adopted in other parts of the world. In 2018, for example, a company in New Zealand—Perpetual Guardian—permanently went to a four day work week after a successful trial. Some companies in the UK embraced the model after piloting a six-month program after which 54 of the 61 participating companies stayed with the schedule. 

Who’s in favor; who isn’t?

While they may not be broadcasting their stance widely, tech.co recently provided a list of 11 companies offering a four day work week option including Amazon, Microsoft, and Panasonic. It’s important to note, though, that not all of these four day work week models offer the same amount of pay for working four versus five days a week as Sanders’ bill would require. 

Employees are also, not surprisingly, generally in favor of a four day work week.  According to a Bankrate study, 89% of employees in the US would support a four day work week, remote, or hybrid work. 

Despite evidence that a four day work week can be an efficient model with no negative impacts on productivity, there are some detractors. Fast Company reports that “statistician Liberty Vittert and labor attorney Roger King both raised issues about productivity and claimed that even if a reduced week has benefited some companies, it couldn’t be established across all sectors.”

Despite Vittert and others’ protestations, experiments around the globe show compelling evidence of the efficacy of a four day work week. 

Download this free guide to learn the 10 HR metrics every company should track—plus 5 bonus metrics.

Examples of successful implementation

  • Tyler Grange, a UK-based environmental consultancy, reports that “productivity increased by 22%, job applications are up 88%, absenteeism is down by 66%, their carbon footprint is down with people driving less for work, and employees are less tired and happier.”

  • Two large-scale trials conducted from 2015-2019 in Iceland have led 86% of the country’s workforce to adopt shorter hours.

  • The European Union has led a pilot with support from unions and governments—a concept that has been enthusiastically adopted by Gen Z workers who tend to be most favorable among the generations to the concept. 

  • Workers at Microsoft Japan, NPR reports, successfully adopted a four day work week and boosted productivity by 40%.

The concept, of course, won’t work for all companies, or all positions. Each organization will need to consider the pros and cons before moving in this direction, absent any federal laws requiring them to do so.

Pros and cons

Companies are on both sides of the fence when it comes to supporting a four day work week, and for good reason. There are compelling pros and cons related to the concept.

Pros of a four day work week

Cons of a four day work week

Longer weekends give people more time to decompress.

It may make it harder to schedule necessary meetings.

Reduced stress and burnout for employees.

Some employees may take unfair advantage.

Reduced sick days and turnover.

HR departments don’t have a good way to track people’s time.

Employees are overwhelmingly in favor of a shorter workweek. 

Companies raise concerns about the ability to meet customer demands and to cover all shifts.

Increased productivity, based on trials in Japan, the UK, and by companies like Microsoft.

Concerns about the potential for decreased productivity.

Reduced operating and overhead costs.

Longer, more intense workdays could increase stress and fatigue for employees.

Environmental benefits due to less commuting, less energy used in offices or manufacturing plants. 

The complexities of implementation related to workload adjustments, scheduling, and company operations.

Potential to attract more job candidates

Potential inequity issues in ensuring fairness across different roles and employees in those roles. 

Companies and their HR leaders need to be prepared to shift to a four day work week if it becomes law—or if the company decides to move in this direction even absent specific regulations.

Download this free guide to learn the 10 HR metrics every company should track—plus 5 bonus metrics.

Implications for HR leaders 

There are several considerations to keep in mind when shifting to a four day work week, including:

  • Ensuring that all applicable labor and disability laws are followed, including compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

  • Evaluating the potential impact on salaried, hourly, and part-time employees, including pay, benefits, and PTO.

  • Reviewing potential impact on employees with H1B or other visas.

  • Reviewing employment contracts and job descriptions. 

  • Creating policies to outline the specifics of a four day work week, who (which positions and/or employees) is eligible, and what makes them eligible.

  • Communicating with and training managers and supervisors.

  • Communicating with employees.

  • Being prepared to respond to questions and concerns.

Shifting to a four day work week model can be a major endeavor. Fortunately, people data can help.

How people data can help 

The people data insights gained through people analytics can play an important role in considering or making the transition to a four day work week. People data can be used to:

Visier can help. Visier’s approach to people analytics emphasizes the importance of using actionable insights and the democratization of data to empower leaders and managers to make informed decisions aligned with company objectives—and the well-being of employees.

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