Fighting for four
By Manav Seth
The prevalent 40-hour workweek model (eight hours a day; five days a week) can be traced back to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which was passed in response to worker demands for better working conditions and pay during the decades leading up to it. In 1937, auto plant workers in General Motors protested against poor working conditions that did not allow bathroom breaks, no benefits, sick pay, or safety standards. The Act passed the next year was the government’s way to support the demands of the workers. But, that was more than 80 years ago, and businesses, workplaces, management models, and workforce priorities have undergone a monumental shift since.
These changes have raised questions regarding the need to rely on outdated work schedules and models, notably when technology has simplified and automated several manual and time-consuming tasks. Continuing the conversation that People Matters initiated in January 2020 edition, wherein we discussed the benefits of a four-day workweek, let’s look at how the movement gained momentum in the last few years and what we can expect in the future.
The rising demand for a four-day workweek
The concept of the four-day workweek has been around for more than a decade, at least. The state government of Utah started working ten-hour a day from Monday to Thursday in 2008; however, the practice was ended in 2011. Public schools in Hawaii also tried non-working Fridays in 2010 for a limited duration, and government officials in the Gambia were also given leave on Fridays between 2013 and 2017 (although the working hours were 8.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. on working days in the latter case). Even the World Economic Forum has thrown its weight behind the new work model.
The concept of the four-day workweek has been around for more than a decade, at least
However, the most prominent example of a successful four-day experiment can be found in New Zealand’s Perpetual Guardian, which started the practice in February 2018. The founder of the organizations, Andrew Barnes, has become one of the biggest advocates of the concept, and has started another organization called “Day Week” and written a book called “The 4 Day Week: How the Flexible Work Revolution Can Increase Productivity, Profitability, and Wellbeing, and Create a Sustainable Future” as well. The trial at Perpetual Guardian garnered significant attention, and researchers tracking the experiment called it a success, with only a few of the 200+ employees struggling to adapt to the new schedule or missing work during the extended weekend4.
Barnes says that the company has permanently adopted the “100:80:100” system - 100 percent pay, 80 percent hours, and 100 percent productivity. Unlike the four-day workweek experiment that Microsoft conducted (explained in detail in the previous edition), Perpetual Guardian let its employees decide which day of the week they want to take off or even work all five days, but with fewer hours every day. Barnes says that fewer working days will have other benefits too, lower energy consumption, and manageable traffic on roads.
In the last couple of years, the concept has spread like wildfire; presidential candidates in the USA have endorsed it, labor unions in the UK have adopted it as their demand (the Labor Party in the UK even promised a 32-hour workweek in its manifesto but lost the election), and Finland’s Prime Minister is known to have a favorable view of it as well. Several small establishments in the UK were reportedly trying the four-day workweek in early 2019 as well. In January 2020, American fast-food joint Shake Shack rolled out the four-day workweek at a third of its location, primarily to attract and retain quality talent.
Earlier this year, it was falsely reported that the Finnish Prime Minister wants to make four-day workweeks and six-hour workdays a reality. Later, it was revealed that she had merely expressed support of the idea during a party meeting in August, well before she was elected as the Prime Minister and that there are plans in the near future to make the four-day workweek a norm in Finland.
How will it play out in the future?
While no leading global organization has embraced the four-day workweek model yet, experts think that bigger and established organizations like Google and Facebook will be able to adopt it much better than smaller businesses. This is because employees in small organizations are likely already to be working their full capacity, and a full workday off might induce more stress to finish the same work in lesser time. Experts also believe that employers need to offer creative and flexible work solutions to attract skilled people and incentivize employees to stay. So, it might just be a matter of time until one or two industry leaders start the practice, and others follow suit to remain competitive. HR will, however, need sophisticated tools and resources to balance employee productivity and business deliveries alongside flexible working hours to ensure continued progress and growth. Similarly, employers will need to measure and track the impact of these changes meticulously to decide if there is a need to revert back or not.
However, some obvious landmines would need attention before the concept is applied. Barnes says that a top-down approach would be counter-productive, and employees must have the flexibility to change how they work. In other words, they should choose if they want a fixed day off, choose the day every week, or work fewer hours on five days. Next, employees must be supported in this change and shouldn’t be made to work extremely long hours or under high-pressure stress on the four days they work. Lastly, experts suggest that a four-day workweek might force employees to prioritize on the most-critical tasks they need to do, and lose sight of other essential tasks that are not as high on the priority list; for instance, training and career development.
Perpetual Guardian has permanently adopted the '100:80:100' system - 100 percent pay, 80 percent hours, and 100 percent productivity
One of the biggest critiques against the four-day week model is that it does not apply to all industries. Only white-collared workers having typical 9-to-5 jobs are most likely to benefits from it as employees in sectors like retail, manufacturing, or construction are needed at their place of work every day. And this is particularly true in a country like India where an overwhelming majority of the workforce is employed in the informal sector. Furthermore, the culture of working hard and committing to work is extremely dominant in India, which means that the mindset of what constitutes hard work needs to change before we can change the number of days we work. In a country where working for six, or even seven, days of the week is the norm, the conversation around the four-day workweek is unsurprisingly muted. It is also important to note that several global business leaders and entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk and Jack Ma, are advocates of longer workweeks and have expressed their disapproval for 40-hour workweeks.
So, if most young employees today would barter flexibility for a higher salary, and if the average global worker feels that they can do their entire day’s work in five hours, is it just a matter of time until the modern work culture and management practices catch up with reality? Or is the four-day workweek a passing trend that will fade into oblivion in a few months? Depending on who is answering the question, the answer might be starkly different.