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Shorter Workweeks Come to Four-ground

The pandemic has taught employers that nothing is impossible. When the seemingly impossible happened and workers were sent home to ride out the storm of Covid-19, productivity was not lost, and in many cases grew more prolific. And likewise, employees learned that the “traditional” daily grind of a five-day workweek is not imperative, and that fewer days of work can often lead to a more positive work/life balance. Countries around the globe have long been toggling the pendulum of work hours per week, hoping to find the magic fulcrum where both job satisfaction and productivity lie. Although Belgium is the latest country to mandate a four-day workweek, there are several countries around the globe that are already succeeding in this endeavor.

History of the Workweek

As for the United States, if you ever wondered about the proliferation of the forty-hour, five-day workweek, and why we have that model to start with, you have Henry Ford to thank. Coming out of the Industrial Revolution, workers were working 12–14-hour days and often 6-7 days a week. But in 1926, Ford embraced the five-day, 40-hour workweek. This gave employees more of a balance and created the coveted weekend. Congress took it a step further in 1938 by passing the Fair Labor Standards Act, limiting the workweek to 44 hours. And two years later, the work week became the standard 40-hour week.

Interestingly, according to the Fast Company, English economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1929 that technology would bring the workweek down to just 15 hours within 100 years. Although his idea did not come to fruition, the pandemic has re-opened the conversation about how much work is necessary per week, and where exactly the balance should lie between personal time and professional time.

Belgium’s Business Bio

Belgium has recently been on a trajectory to improve their citizen’s lives and has taken a long hard look at the typical work week in order to do so. They had previously announced that all federal civil servants would not have to answer work calls or emails outside of working hours. This was a great step so that workers could have some separation between work and home life. “Around 65,000 government workers earned “the right to disconnect,” in hopes of leading a better work-life balance.”

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo took the reforms one step further recently, announcing the reform package for his country. He said, “We have experienced two difficult years. With this agreement, we set a beacon for an economy that is more innovative, sustainable and digital. The aim is to be able to make people and businesses stronger.”

In Belgium, employees who wish to will ask to have a six-month trial of the four-day workweek.  Belgian labor minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne said that the impetus to ask for the reduction in days rests solely on the worker. “This has to be done at the request of the employee, with the employer giving solid reasons for any refusal.”

In opposition to some other countries that have instituted a four-day workweek, Belgian employees are still expected to work their full week but can elongate the other four days in order to compensate. The magic number for workers is 38 hours.

Positives of Four Day Weeks

For most employees, a four-day workweek is about work life balance. With an extra day for every weekend, employees will have time to get typical weekend chores done, while still having time to relax and enjoy their families and friends. Cut out the stress of another day dressing up, commuting, and getting lunch on the go, and the week is already easier.

Another unexpected perk is that with the Great Resignation causing companies to lose workers, companies can also use their four-day workweeks to lure quality workers. “It absolutely put a rocket underneath the business,” says Josh Foreman, CEO and founder of Indebted, whose company moved to a four-day 32-hour workweek.  “In the first 45 days since announcing [the four-day work week], we had more applicants than the preceding four-and-a-half months. Our talent engines up about 283% since we rolled it out.” In addition to being able to attract new employees, the current employees have reported lower levels of burnout and increased happiness.

Countries Exploring the Trend

The four-day workweek is certainly appealing, and many countries have already explored the phenomenon. Most situations have met with success.

Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland tested a 35 to 36 hour workweek, without cutting people’s pay, The Association for Sustainability and Democracy analyzed the results. “Based upon the stellar results, Icelandic trade unions negotiated for a reduction in working hours. The study also led to a significant change in Iceland, nearly 90% of the working population now have reduced hours or other accommodations. Worker stress and burnout lessened. There was an improvement in work-life balance.”

In the extremely-workaholic nation of Japan, it seems incongruous that this country would be touting a four-day work week. After all, they are so accustomed to people working themselves to death that they even have a word for it: “karōshi. ”But Microsoft Japan piloted a shorter workweek program called “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer.” All 2,300 employees had the opportunity to create a flexible work schedule, and management wanted to know if productivity and morale would increase. “The results of the experiment were extremely positive, indicating that workers were both happier and 40% more productive.”

Some companies are reluctant to move to a four-day week because of the risk of lost wages. But because of a campaign promise from the Scottish National Party, Scotland has instituted a trial run. Although workers will have a 20% reduction in work, their pay will not suffer, as the Scottish National Party will split the difference. Spain is also running a similar program to Scotland, a  trial four-day workweek. The Spanish government agreed to a 32-hour workweek over three years without hurting the workers’ bottom line: compensation. As with Scotland, the government assumes some of the monetary risk.

The United Arab Emirates has created an interesting program, beginning in 2022 as the first nation in the world to adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek.  Working from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, workers will be able to leave at noon on Friday.

Is the United States next? Democratic Congressman Mark Takano from California introduced legislation that would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours. Takano has touted the benefits of a shorter work week for both employees and employers. Takano said, “Pilot programs run by governments and businesses across the globe have shown promising results, as productivity climbed and workers reported better work-life balance, less need to take sick days, heightened morale and lower childcare expenses because they had more time with their family and children.”

Perhaps we are seeing the beginning of the end of working on Fridays. Let’s hope that the United States moves in this direction!

Adnan Zai

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