Why more and more companies are adopting a 4-day work week

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In May 2020, as the pandemic raised stress levels, an online children’s clothing retailer called Primary began an experiment that he hoped would keep his staff from running out: he gave everyone the Friday off. In December, the new schedule was working so well that Primary decided to extend it indefinitely.

Primary’s 60 employees have not suffered a pay cut and workers are not expected to extend their hours during the four days they are working. They sometimes do work on Fridays, but you don’t expect it, and the day is meeting-free across the company. Thursdays became known as “Junior Fridays” and “Thursday”.

A big plus, said Cap Watkins, Primary Experiment Manager, is that “people feel recharged on Monday.” The company’s voluntary attrition rate has dipped slightly to 7 percent this year, even as workers in the United States quit their jobs at record levels.

Primary is part of the latest wave of experimentation with a work schedule that has been around for decades but never really caught on. Driven by the flexible working arrangements and bonus days off that were introduced during the pandemic, concerns about burnout and empowering employees in a tight labor market, companies are embracing a shorter work week .

Kickstarter, Shake Shack and Unilever’s New Zealand unit are among those who have either experimented with the four-day work week or have announced their intention to do so. And after an experience in Iceland supported the idea that the system improves the welfare of workers without reducing overall production, a majority of the country’s workers have now moved to or will be entitled to shorter work weeks.

Four-day weeks have seemed incredibly close before. Richard Nixon, then vice-president, predicted in 1956 a four-day work week in “the not too distant future”. President Jimmy Carter said in 1977 that a four-day work week would save energy amid the oil crisis, and considered urging companies to embrace it. In 1978, The Washington Post proclaimed: “Since the early 1970s, the four-day workweek seems to be fast approaching, but this time it feels real. That same year, Douglas Fraser, president of the United Auto Workers, said that a shorter week was “absolutely inevitable.”

What happened? Economic stagnation and recession in the 1970s and 1980s likely sapped any momentum, as did the corporate focus on efficiency, globalization, and the diminishing power of the workforce. A study carried out in March 2020 by Gallup found that only 5 percent of American workers generally work four-day weeks.

But current conditions have set the stage for a future where such schedules are common.

About 1% of the Icelandic workforce participated in its trials to reduce the workweek for equal pay, which lasted for several years from 2015.

“The trials were successful,” concluded a recent research report of the experiment.

“Participating workers worked fewer hours and enjoyed greater well-being, a better work-life balance and a better cooperative spirit in the workplace, while maintaining standards. existing performance and productivity. “

A four-day schedule can make it easier for caregivers, including working parents, to juggle their responsibilities. And the extra day off means fewer commuting days, saving time and reducing environmental impact.

One drawback reported in Iceland was that it was more difficult for managers to plan group activities like training days or farewell parties for departing staff. Some workers also said that the compressed pace made it more difficult to communicate transfer information to co-workers between shifts.

The A Gallup study found that people who worked four-day weeks had significantly higher levels of well-being and were less likely to feel chronically exhausted. But they also exhibited higher levels of active disengagement.

“By working fewer days a week, employees who already feel disconnected from their employer, team or manager are more likely to distance themselves even further – from tolerating their work to hating them,” wrote Jim Harter. and Ryan Pendell of Gallup. This is of particular concern for companies that are concerned about worker retention.

Mr Harter, the chief scientist for Gallup’s workplace management practice, said in an interview that a good manager can compensate for any tendency to disengage. His recommendation, however, would be that companies offer flexible hours rather than four-day weeks, so workers can tailor their schedules to their individual circumstances.

Another common question is whether a four-day week is really practical for all kinds of businesses, including businesses such as law firms that are beholden to client inquiries that can come in any day of the week. the week. Kromann Reumert, a commercial law firm based in Copenhagen, Denmark, introduced a flexible working policy last year where some staff work four days a week, although their aggregate hours are generally not reduced.

“While it is possible to take days off during the weekend, it is of course possible to take a half day or a full day off during the week,” said Birgitte Brix Bendtsen, Head of Human Resources and the development of the company of around 500 people. . She says the nature of project-based legal work means staff members can set aside days off when not faced with deadlines, and in general, the availability of the four-day option reduces. any stigma when people stop for anything. raison. “The employees are so much happier,” Ms. Bendtsen said.

“I really think anyone could do it. No doubt about it,” said Galyn Bernard, co-founder of Primary.

Supporters of the four-day weeks say the key is to curb meetings. “You have better discipline around meetings. You’re a lot more reflective in the way you use technology,” said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of “Shorter,” a book on the four-day work week. He also said that a shorter week requires workers to set aside time for targeted work and to refrain from emails or other communications during that time.

“To paraphrase William Gibson, the four-day week is already here for most businesses,” said Mr. Pang, an organizational strategy consultant in Menlo Park, Calif. “She’s buried under a whole heap of rubble from outdated practices and bad meetings. Once you get that out of the way, it turns out the four-day week is within your grasp. ”

Kevin Delaney is co-founder and editor-in-chief of charter, a media and services company focused on the future of work.

This article is reprinted from The New York Times with permission. © 2021. All rights reserved.

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