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The Four-Day Work Week: The Next Phase of the Workplace Revolution?

POSTED ON 
February 8, 2022

A deep dive into the origins of the 40-hour workweek and why it may be time for an adjustment

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that the old way of working wasn’t in fact working. In many ways, the pandemic has been a catalyst for a workplace reform revolution of sorts. It has highlighted the flaws with our traditional working models and even managed to accomplish some myth busting along the way.

Contrary to popular belief, many organizations learned that their employees could be, and in many cases are, more productive outside the constraints of an office and traditional working hours. Flexibility and balance have been key to boosting employee morale in a time of continued chaos. And in a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing down, it is only a matter of time before more traditional working norms are challenged in the fight to rethink the way we work.  

“BUT THAT’S THE WAY WE’VE ALWAYS DONE IT”

The traditional 40-hour workweek as we know it today was conceived from another famous workforce revolution – the Industrial Revolution. Factories ran around the clock, with six-day, 70+ hour work weeks as the norm, which inevitably led to protests, strikes and lobbying. The labor movement that followed resulted in what we know today as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which went into effect in 1940 and limited the work week to 40 hours.  

In the 82 years since the FLSA was passed, the world of work has changed dramatically, namely the fact that women now make up 57% of the workforce, something that was practically unheard of in 1940. What’s more, most Americans today clock well above 40-hours a week.

Our culture continues to glamorize the grind – long hours, going above and beyond, pushing mental and physical boundaries, all in the name of getting ahead in your career. And while workers are putting in the hours, it is not necessarily translating into business success. Research has shown time and time again that employee productivity drops significantly after 50 hours.  

Bottom line – the workforce has changed a lot in these 80+ years and its time that we acknowledge and accept that this model may no longer be best suited for our current reality. And it seems that some companies are finally starting to take notice!

Rethinking the Traditional Workweek

Not only have we seen a shift away from the traditional 9-to-5, in-office model, but ideas surrounding a four-day work week (yes, you read that right!) are starting to gain traction.

Both Panasonic and Bolt recently announced plans to introduce company-wide four-day workweeks in an effort to reduce employee stress and allow for proper recovery from work. The rationale behind Bolt’s decision is simple – providing its people with more time away from the office to rest and recuperate will result in more energy, enthusiasm and productivity. And it’s not just organizations jumping on the trend.

Governments across the globe are also taking the plunge and testing new four-day workweeks – with many seeing promising results! From 2015-2019, Iceland piloted a reduced hour workweek, cutting hours down to 35-36 per week, with no pay cuts. What they found was that worker stress and burnout decreased and there was vast improvement in overall work-life balance.

Success in Iceland led Spain and Scotland to follow-suit with their own reduced workweek trials and most recently, Finland’s Prime minster has upped the ante, proposing a six-hour, four-day workweek. Here in the United States, legislation has been introduced to reduce the standard workweek from 40 down to 32 hours, citing that the reduction would benefit not only employees, but companies as well.  

LOOKING AHEAD

While it is yet to be seen if the four-day workweek will catch on, how we think about our relationship with work will continue to evolve. With burnout and employee dissatisfaction on the rise, employers must take a hard look at workforce practices and employee sentiment and evaluate what is and isn’t working.

A four-day workweek may not make sense for all, but it doesn’t hurt to take a step back and think about the added benefits a new workweek model could produce. If ever there was a time to think outside the box when it comes to workforce norms, it is now. The revolution has started, but the question remains -- are you ready?

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Sonia Segal-Smith
SENIOR MANAGER, STRATEGY

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