The four-day workweek has been back in the news recently. New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rekindled the conversation when she posted a video on Facebook in which she stated employers may want to consider a shorter workweek for their employees. More recently, former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted a Washington Post article about the four-day workweek and urged companies in the U.S. to consider it, stating that it would create “jobs at the margins” and improve mental health.

The idea of a compressed workweek is certainly not new. American labor union leader Walter Reuther advocated for it as early as the 1950s, and some would argue that various forms of the idea have been proposed for over 80 years. Among the research-backed benefits that proponents cite are greater productivity, more work-life balance, higher employee satisfaction and better overall health and well-being.

Other significant advantages to businesses include reductions in employee sick time, overtime and personal leave time. Additional benefits that go beyond companies’ bottom lines potentially include alleviating climate change, due to less commuting, and facilitating workplace gender equality. There have even been suggestions that the four-day workweek can potentially help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but this is one area for which there is not a significant degree of empirical data.

In general, I support the idea of a compressed workweek as something that businesses can explore if it suits their unique situation and circumstances. However, the best ways to implement a compressed workweek for maximum effectiveness depend greatly on the reasons for doing so, and we would, therefore, need to clarify that first.

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If we determine that we are going to use the compressed workweek as a way to help contain future spread of COVID-19, then we must consider that there is, at present, very little empirical data supporting the idea that doing so would be effective for this purpose. More research would be needed before we could reasonably argue either for or against.

But for the sake of argument let’s say that a company wanted to use compressed workweeks for this purpose. If the logic is that shortening the workweek would limit infection opportunities, it would undermine that objective to have everyone in the workplace at the same time, and everyone taking the same day off. If we are trying to limit the spread of the virus, then a compressed workweek would most likely work best, hypothetically, if companies stagger employees’ shifts and days off and to minimize the number of people who are in the physical workplace at any given time. Furthermore, companies would have to take the lead in establishing this arrangement since involving employees in the decisionmaking process may complicate and delay matters. 

If, on the other hand, we are going to use the compressed workweek for the empirically supported benefits we already know about (better productivity, well-being, etc.), then allowing employees to participate in the decision and implementation process is very important, as it ensures a higher likelihood of these positive results. Given our country’s present mental health crisis — which has been exacerbated by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosive racial tensions witnessed recently — companies may want to consider experimenting with a compressed workweek for the benefits to their employees’ well-being alone, irrespective of whether compressed workweeks are at all effective in reducing COVID-19 infections or not.

Of course, if the rationale for a four-day workweek is not about alleviating a pandemic but about improving our employees’ mental and physical well-being, then there may be considerable resistance to this given how deeply entrenched the Protestant work ethic is in our collective psyche. The tendency for certain social media influencers to boast about how busy they are is but one of many of the most recent cultural manifestations of this. Focusing on the fact that compressed workweeks can be a way to improve employee productivity, instead of focusing on the benefit of better work/life balance, might be one way to get around the cultural resistance to the idea. Educating people that a compressed workweek does not mean working less but rather working differently, and potentially more efficiently, would also help.

As a business consultant who has been grappling with these kinds of issues for more than 10 years, I am constantly trying to convince business leaders to consider alternative paradigms and new, creative ways of doing business that can improve their desired outcomes. I have found that one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic and its many repercussions is that decisionmakers across wide-ranging industries are now open, at the very least, to ideas that they would not have remotely entertained just a few months ago. As difficult as this time is, therefore, it presents many opportunities for changes and improvements that would be beneficial to businesses, their employees and to our society in general.       

Amy Quarton is associate instructor for the online organizational leadership program at Maryville University.

Published on Jun 12, 2020