The Call for a Shorter Workweek Is Trending — and Both Employees and Employers Are Behind It

March 24, 2021

Comic of two men in an office walking past two other workers putting up a “TGIW” banner. One of the men says to the other, “I hear we’re beginning to cut back to half weeks.”

Frances O’Grady, the head of the Trades Union Congress in the United Kingdom, told the 2018 gathering of her labor federation that automation shouldn’t be viewed as a job thief. It ultimately might be a blessing for workers: “I believe that in this century,” she said, “we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.”

A shorter workweek? We’ve all dreamed of it, but never thought it would really happen.  

Well, our dreams may come true: Business owners large and small are lining up behind the idea and much faster than maybe even Frances thought possible. The pandemic has opened eyes to the possibilities of flexible work — both in terms of where people work and, more quietly, when.

The government of Spain recently agreed to a three-year pilot that will test a 32-hour workweek without cutting employee pay. Last year, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern touted the four-day workweek as an approach that could pump up productivity, work-life balance, and even domestic tourism. Joe Ryle, campaign officer for the U.K.-based 4 Day Week Campaign, said the idea has “grown in both popularity and momentum since COVID hit.”

Even in Japan, where they have a word, karoshi, for death by overwork, the Mizuho Financial Group has started allowing employees to work three or four days a week (with a corresponding cut in pay).

Business leaders, as well as their employees, are embracing the idea of a shorter workweek

Google cofounder Larry Page has called for the end of the 40-hour workweek for years now. And Sir Richard Branson, billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, argued against the notion that we should view the five-day workweek as set in stone. Sir Richard once blogged: “There is no reason this can’t change. In fact, it would benefit everyone if it did.”

On the small business side, Stephan Aarstol, founder and CEO of Tower, a startup beach-lifestyle company best known for its paddle boards, wrote: “The idea that workers are expected to endure 70% of their week so they can enjoy the other 30% is collective insanity.” The San Diego–based Tower is also recognized for having adopted a five-hour workday more than five years ago.

Perpetual Guardian, a company with over 230 employees in New Zealand that manages trusts, wills, and estates, successfully experimented with a 32-hour workweek in 2018. Owner Andrew Barnes saw no fall-off in productivity, and research he commissioned showed employees were more creative, committed, and empowered and less stressed when working four days rather than five each week. Perpetual Guardian made the four-day workweek permanent.

The short workweek has a long history

Shortening the 40-hour workweek is not a new idea. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes, in a famous paper entitled “Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren,” speculated that a time would come when we would have three-hour shifts or 15-hour workweeks. In 2007, entrepreneur Timothy Ferriss published The 4-Hour Workweek, which became a long-standing best-seller by offering advice on how to work smarter and more efficiently rather than harder and longer.

Two and a half years ago, The New York Times surveyed some of the businesses and governments that had experimented with either shorter workdays or workweeks. The piece in the Times ends with a cautionary note from Paul Swinney, the head of policy and research at the London-based think tank Center for Cities: “In 50 or 100 years’ time, it may be that four days is the norm, but we shouldn’t expect it by 2020.”

He was right about 2020, but seems overly cautious about when a shorter workweek may become the standard.

Automation and other efficiencies, such as mandating shorter meetings, mean that companies may be able to trim the workweek without cutting into productivity or profits. “A five-hour workday,” Tower’s Stephan writes, “offers baked-in time management by forcing you to prioritize high-value activities.”

Yes, with the pandemic having made a compelling case for flexible work and, simultaneously, having pushed many employees to the edge of burnout, all signs point to this being the ideal time to take a longer view of the shorter workweek.

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