Experts Corner

Could A Shorter Work Week Increase Productivity? Research Says Yes.

August 4, 2021   By Ecosa Dream Writers
WFH means less time travelling and in unnecessary meetings.

Four-day workweek and a three-day weekend? Reduced hours and less burnout in the workplace…

Where do we sign up!?

The reduced workweek has been a trending conversation across the business world since Covid-19 hit and changed the way we think about traditional work practices. 📆

Many employees are now questioning the 9-5 slug and office commutes since a lot of us seem to be able to get just as much done at home with less time wasted on meetings (that could have been emails) and idle chats with coworkers between desks. All while being able to balance family, socialising and other hobbies.

This new strategy: getting the same amount of work done in less time is now thought to be the “future of work”. 

Reports suggest that a shorter working week produces positive results: a happier and healthier work culture compared to five days at the office or a 40-hour workweek.  

Even before the pandemic, the primary aim of most companies was the same — to promote a productive and efficient working environment. 

Likewise, the workforce typically desires a work-life balance or flexible work schedule with the hope of achieving or surpassing desired results at work, all while enjoying the remaining hours in their day, however they see fit.

How much of the day are we actually using to its full potential? Cal Newport, master of all things productivity, calls this period of concentration: ‘deep work’, which, according to him, is no more than a few hours. 👨‍💻

So it begs the question: can a shorter work week really achieve high productivity, save our sanity and improve our mental health? 

We think so.

What does a reduced week look like?

Let’s first compare the five-day workweek and the four-day workweek. 

The 40-hour workweek can be traced to the industrial revolution, when socialist enterprises and labour movements demanded: “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest”, to replace what had long been accepted as the seven-day workweek. 

In 1924, car manufacturer Henry Ford introduced a 40-hour workweek because he thought the extra leisure time would incentivise employees to buy more cars.

And while unions had some success in Australia and New Zealand in the mid 19th century, formal laws weren’t put in place anywhere until 1919when Spain became the first country to put forward an official limit of 8 hours of work per day.

In 1919, an eight-hour-day was put forward in the Hours of Work Convention, and 52 countries have ratified it since. 

The International Workingmen’s Association, endorsing demonstrations worldwide, named May 1st as the day Americans should no longer work more than 8 hours.

And in Australia, The Stonemasons, desperate for labourers during the gold rush, granted workers the eight-hour day due to strikes disrupting their original plan.

After the Second World War, purchasing power became a status symbol for those contributing to the economy — it became a source of American pride when people could finally identify themselves as part of the workforce and a booming middle class, otherwise known as “the American dream.

Many argue that work is no longer, or should no longer, be intrinsic to our sense of selfand therefore, shouldn’t take up the entire space of our waking lives.

Working five days straight without any day off may have been efficient in the past (at least to the benefit of employers), but it is no longer compatible with the changing work population.

Still, as more and more people demand a better work-life balance, companies will be forced to keep up to not be left behind or see their employees turn on them. 

Employers are being pushed to rethink their work structure. The pandemic urged them to prioritise the needs of their employees rather than micro-managing their time.

Considering a lot has changed in the past century, (most of us in Australia aren’t working in factorieswith work shifting to a knowledge-based economy and the threat of a “great resignation”, perhaps the workweek could use an update? 

The data speaks for itself: the 4-day workweek is gaining popularity as more companies favour better work results and a better work-life balance. 

A typical 4-day workweek is composed of an average of 9 hours a day, 4 working days, and a three-day weekend, but many campaigners are calling for 32-hour weeks.

This is contrary to the misconception that it would involve compressing 40 hours into 4 10-hour days.

The Iceland Experiment

Could the 40 hour workweek be a thing of the past?

A study of over 1% of Iceland’s workforce (from 2015-2019) was conducted to monitor the success rate of the four-day workweek.

The test spanned several different workplaces and industries, including schools, hospitals, and the police. 

The Iceland Experiment’s reduced work calendar was made up of 35-36 hours in a week.

Participants were tasked to find their own way of making the shorter working week workable; some would opt for half a day off on particular days, others would take an entire day off from their typical five-day workweek.

Heralded as the world’s largest trial for a shorter workweek, the Iceland Experiment received stellar results! It was an overwhelming success, according to the Association for Sustainability and Democracy. ✅

The highlights include:

  • Improved well-being.
  • Less burnout among workers.
  • Improved productivity.
  • Improved work-life balance.
  • Revenues remaining neutral.  

This even led to Icelandic trade unions being empowered to negotiate and push to maintain shorter hours. Given all these results, nearly 90% of the working population now have reduced hours in a week.

Has it been done elsewhere?

With the popularity and success of the ‘shorter workweek’ experiment in Iceland, the British government was called to examine a similar test. 

Forty-five members of the parliament in the United Kingdom were clearly impressed with the results of their own trial, noting that the shorter week would benefit our mental health, as well as “society, the environment, our democracy, and our economy (through increased productivity).

In a letter, the British MP’s explained why the shorter workweek is more relevant than ever.

Three-quarters of UK workers already supported a four-day working week before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and millions of workers have now had a taste of working remotely and on different hours. It’s in no one’s interests to return back to the pressure and stress that people were under before this pandemic.”

And it’s not only the British government making the change; thousands of companies around the globe are following suit and hopping aboard the shorter workweek train.

Countries like Spain were also inspired — the Spanish government announced a 32-hour working week over three years without cutting compensation. The government made up the difference in salary, investing around $60 million for companies who wanted to participate in the pilot program of the four-day workweek. 

Demand is continuing to grow for the 4-day Week Campaign, the Telegraph reporting that “an overwhelming 87% of Scottish government workers want a four-day week put to the test.”

Productivity and mental health increased at Microsoft Japan.

Surprisingly, given its intense culture of hustling and working incredibly long hours, Japan was keen on persuading companies to adopt the four-day workweek.

Microsoft Japan ran a trial of a shorter workweek under a summer project bent on boosting productivity and creativity. Closing its offices every Friday for a month, the company found almost a 40% increase in labour productivity vs the previous month. 

New Zealand definitely did not want to lose the condensed-week race. Perpetual Guardian, one of the country’s most well-known financial services firms, tried the four-day workweek experiment and were thrilled with the results.

Their trial proved to be a success and showed at least a 20% increase in productivity and a 40% improvement in workers’ perception of their work-life balance.

There are many more companies that are now implementing the reduced workweek around the world. And more often than not, results are as convincing and inspiring as the Iceland Experiment. 

Pros and Cons of a 4-day work week

We have seen the fantastic results of the four-day workweek for employees. From a better work-life balance to increased well-being, including physical and mental health — productivity rates are expected to remain high!

Job retention equals job satisfaction. 📈

After all, the current tight labour market is one of the reasons why numerous employers are providing the shorter workweek alternative. 

Some setbacks for selected groups of full-time employees might include the pressure to get work done in a shorter period.

Some workers find it difficult to figure out how to better serve customers on days they have off, especially for customer-facing retail and hospitality jobs. 

But with thousands of experiments conducted among a myriad of companies and a great success rate, it is now up to the rest of the world whether or not they want to embrace the potential benefits of this new work model.

After all, what business would want to miss out on adapting their company to the “future of work”? 

happy woman working at her laptop.
Reduced hours leads to increased productivity, work-life balance and less stress.

So, what is the best path forward from here? 

Just like with the question of working from home vs the office, the answer is simple: offer employees the option of the reduced week, and businesses might just be surprised by the outcome.

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