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Four-Day Workweeks: The Future, or Just a Fantasy?

If Rep. Mark Takano has his way, American workers will soon be getting eight hours of their lives back each week.   


Takano, a Democratic Congressman from California, recently introduced legislation that would shorten the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours, by lowering the maximum hours threshold for overtime compensation for non-exempt employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).


Takano explained the reasoning behind the bill in a statement.


“I am introducing this legislation to reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours because — now more than ever — people continue to work longer hours while their pay remains stagnant. We cannot continue to accept this as our reality. Many countries and businesses that have experimented with a four-day workweek found it to be an overwhelming success, as productivity grew and wages increased.”


Takano is right about companies in other countries seeing positive results when experimenting with the four-day workweek model. 


For example, Microsoft Japan saw a 40% jump in productivity, while electricity costs dropped 23% when it allowed employees to work four days a week throughout the summer of 2019.


Meanwhile, researchers in Iceland have dubbed a four-year trial of shorter workweeks involving more than 2,500 Icelandic workers “an incredible success,” with participants reporting lower levels of stress and burnout, along with greater productivity and work-life harmony. Companies in other countries — New Zealand and Spain, for instance — are currently conducting similar trials.


However fruitful these experiments have been in other places, the prospects of Takano’s bill don’t look promising, said Kamran Mirrafati, partner and litigation lawyer with Foley & Lardner, and a member of the firm’s labor and employment practice.


“At first blush, it seems unlikely that the newly introduced federal legislation to shorten the standard U.S. workweek will pass anytime soon,” said Mirrafati. “This will undoubtedly become a hot-button issue that would have a better chance of succeeding at the state level.”


Chris Olmsted, a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ San Diego office and a member of the firm’s California advice group, agrees that the bill’s chances of passage are slim.


“Most members of Congress are not likely to support this bill, because businesses and most employees would be harmed by such a change to federal overtime rules,” said Olmsted. “A change in the law would likely cause many businesses to reduce full-time, non-exempt employee hours to part-time work in order to avoid paying the overtime premium.”


A cut in hours could equate to a meaningful drop in take-home pay for some full-time employees, he added.


“That reduction could hurt a lot of American families. On the other hand, some businesses may be forced to pay more overtime if part-time workers are not readily available. The increase in costs could decrease company earnings and slow economic growth.”


Legislation or no legislation, the concept of a shorter workweek has never really gained traction in the U.S., whether “shorter” means scaling back to four eight-hour shifts or trying to squeeze 40 hours of work into four days.


That said, the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic have led many companies to consider all sorts of “non-traditional” work arrangements, and the appetite for abbreviated workweeks might be increasing.  


As Workspan Daily has reported, for example, ZipRecruiter data from July 2020 showed the share of company job postings offering four-day workweeks was 69 for every 10,000 job listings; up from 40 per every 10,000 in 2019. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of postings offering shortened workweeks was fewer than 18 per 10,000 postings each year, according to ZipRecruiter.


For workers at the Seattle-based design and marketing firm Killer Visual Strategies, four-day workweeks have been the norm for nearly five years. 


Since the start of 2017, the company’s 30 employees have been working four 10-hour days, with the option of taking either Monday or Friday off each week.


CEO Amy Balliett implemented the condensed schedule in hopes of giving a boost to employees’ flagging energy and productivity levels.


“Burnout runs rampant in creative work, as it requires hours upon hours of detail work in front of a digital screen to hit a consistent level of quality for clients,” Balliett told Workspan. “I found that my team would start work on Mondays fully refreshed after the weekend and ready to take on any challenge.”


Typically, her employees’ productivity over eight hours would peak on Mondays, she said. By mid-week, however, “they would only be able to produce about 75% of the work in the same eight-hour period. By Fridays, [they were turning out] only about 50% of the work.”


The reduced output wasn’t because they were working less or not as hard, said Balliett.


“This was simply due to burnout. It became clear that a four-day workweek would return at least the same productivity while giving my team the opportunity to truly unwind over a three-day weekend.”


Not only did the shortened schedule help workers return to their usual levels of production, but Killer Visual Strategies has been producing 25% more with the same size staff, said Balliett.


“Instead of going from 100% productivity on a Monday down to 50% on a Friday, the four-day workweek leads to roughly 100% productivity in days one and two, and 80% productivity in days three and four.”


Truly unplugging from work in just two days is a tough task, she added. With the benefit of an extended weekend, “you get to make more space for your life outside of work and relax the stressors that work tends to cause. This release of tension gives employees a far better work-life balance and keeps everyone more focused and excited during work hours.”


Still, feedback has been somewhat mixed, in terms of how the shorter schedule has affected employees’ energy and sense of personal and professional equilibrium.


“While the creative content producers on my team — designers, animators, developers, for example — have found it to be hugely beneficial, the client-facing members of my team have found it challenging at times,” said Balliett. “This is because clients sometimes need to talk on [client-facing team members’] days off, which makes it hard to have a consistent four-day work week.”


To overcome this hurdle, project managers who interact with clients receive extra paid time off, to help ensure they are getting an equal benefit as the rest of the team.


Balliett urges other organizations considering four-day schedules to keep such potential challenges in mind before taking the leap.


“It’s important to allow employees to participate in the four-day workweek if it benefits them, while still being able to adjust for a five-day workweek for the team members that would prefer five eight-hour workdays instead.”


About the Author

 Mark McGraw is the managing editor of Workspan. 

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