There’s a perverse American pride in working long hours. Part of that is because of the country’s inherited Protestant work ethic, but Stockholm syndrome might play into it, too. Because despite all the long hours, worker productivity isn’t increasing at nearly the level it should be, considering technological innovations. And, according to a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, compensation isn’t coming close to matching that worker productivity, either. Americans are working harder, not smarter, and they’re getting paid less for it than they should. What’s to be proud of there?
The five-day workweek has zero backing in scientific reasoning. Nearly every American worked a six-day workweek until the early 20th century, when Henry Ford paved the way by shutting down his factories on both Saturday and Sunday. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act made the 40-hour workweek (and, therefore, the two-day weekend) a national standard. Heavyweight economists like John Maynard Keyes suggested the trend would continue. By 1956, Richard Nixon was predicting a four-day workweek on the horizon that would arrive on the back of shrewd Republican policies.
Nearly 75 years later, at least the first part of that prediction might finally be coming true. Record levels of employment and increasing applications of automation are forcing another rethink about the way we work. Pilot programs testing the efficacy and feasibility of shorter workweeks are occuring around the globe.
When asked how many days a week they want to work if their pay was the same—and, yes, zero days a week was a possible answer—34 percent of Americans said they wanted a four-day workweek, making it the most popular response. Slowly, the world is learning that the five-day workweek is subject to the same forces of disruption as every other legacy institution. Meanwhile, pilot programs suggest that shorter workweeks aren’t just more palatable for workers; they’re more palatable for employers, too.
In 2015, in Gothenburg, a retirement home shifted to a six-hour workday, but kept employee compensation as if it were a full workday. Initial results were measurably positive. Employees had more energy, improved productivity, and reduced absenteeism. Residents reported a higher standard of care.
Still, the home’s round-the-clock care of residents meant it was necessary to hire an additional 14 nurses over the course of a year to meet residents’ needs. While the decrease in sick days and time off essentially paid for half of those new 15 salaries, the cost to the home was ultimately more than it would’ve been under the old system. Less a failed experiment and more a first draft, the lessons learned in Gothenburg have paved the way for more contextualized, and more successful, short workweek programs.
In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a 240-person company in New Zealand, did a two-month trial of a four-day workweek, with employee pay remaining the same as it had been during a five-day workweek. Comparing pre-trial to post-trial, a qualitative analysis found staff stress levels went down by 7 percent, and work-life balance went up by 24 percent. Productivity went up by 20 percent. Metrics around leadership, commitment, stimulation, teamwork, collaboration, and empowerment all went up.
Critically, workers were given a month in advance to prepare for the program and in this time employees devised ways to be more efficient, including automating manual processes, shortening and focusing meetings, combining meal breaks with work tasks, and eliminating non-work internet use. Workers treated the new system as a privilege, and worked to make it a success. Perpetual Guardian’s leadership stated that they saw no downside to the new system, and adopted it as a standard practice going forward.
Japan may have an overwork culture similar to that of the United States, but it also has a culture of innovation. In the summer of 2019, Microsoft Japan gave its 2,300 employees a four-day workweek, while keeping their take-home salary the same as a five-day workweek. To facilitate the shorter workweek, the standard duration of meetings was cut in half, from 60 to 30 minutes, and each meeting had its attendance capped at five employees.
The nimbleness paid off: the company noted a 40 percent boost in productivity, a 23 percent reduction in electricity costs, and a 60 percent reduction in printed matter.
A singular model for a shortened workweek isn’t apparent yet. The possible benefits, however, are. It’s healthier to be out of an office than inside of one: stress is reduced, extra time allows for workers to upskill themselves, and healthier/happier people contribute more to personal relationships, society, and the economy at large. Furthermore, shorter workweeks attract more employees, which is an important quality in the landscape of peak employment that the US is seeing now.
The business cases so far teach us that contextual consideration is critical for major changes to the employment schedule. Each company is different, and flexibility and customization are important factors to consider. Larger companies may be better able to withstand the responsibilities of a distilled workweek. Pre-planning appears to be a key component of any workweek transformation: time management, strategies for efficiency, and greater collaboration between workers all contribute to a pilot program’s success. Through trial and error, industry tycoons like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk can pave the way for a national framework, much like Henry Ford did in 1926.
More experimentation is necessary. One German company instituted a shorter workweek while also prohibiting phones, social media, and other distractions; the initial bump in productivity soon gave way to a feeling of overbearing pressure and monotony. Finland’s 2019 ambition to move towards a shorter workweek has stolen a lot of headlines, but the country’s Working Hours Pact of 1996 (which gave employees the power to adjust their working hours by three hours in either direction, to better suit their lifestyle) has done more for productivity than any other country’s workweek legislation so far. Flexibility remains a critical feature of any radical change.
History has shown that greater experimentation with traditional work schedules can yield groundbreaking results. When 3M gave people 15 percent time to work on whatever they wanted, they developed the Post-It note. Google took that concept and bumped it to 20 percent time, and in return they delivered Gmail and Google Earth. If management professionals continue to apply empathy, nuance, and creativity to their notions of the workweek, the results can be transformational.