Interest grows in 4-day work week as employers consider impact on staff, retention, productivity

·4 min read
Some businesses are testing out shortened work weeks to see how it affects their staff and their bottom line. (Fizkes/Shutterstock - image credit)
Some businesses are testing out shortened work weeks to see how it affects their staff and their bottom line. (Fizkes/Shutterstock - image credit)

Many dream of a shorter work week, one where you spend less time at the office, more time with loved ones, all while still being able to afford life as we know it.

And for more people, that's becoming a reality.

Businesses and organizations in countries across the world are testing out a four-day work week, one that wouldn't compress 40 hours into fewer days or pay workers a smaller salary.

Companies in the U.K. are the latest to pilot four-day work weeks for 3,300 workers across a variety of sectors over the next six months.

In Iceland, the national government and Reykjavík city council worked with unions to test a four-day work week for its staff over the course of four years starting in 2015. Researchers described the project as an "overwhelming success" and many workers have now moved to fewer hours.

Businesses in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere have also signed up to give it a shot through the global non-profit 4 Day Week, which was started by the founders of an estate planning company in New Zealand that switched staff to a four-day week in 2018, and now aims to help others figure out if it will work for them.

It's not a foreign concept in Canada, either, with more bosses and owners recognizing its potential benefits, including healthier employees and lower staff turnover.

Staff at the law firm Acheson Sweeney Foley Sahota in Victoria currently work a four-day week, without adding hours to those days and without a loss of pay. Partner Rajinder Sahota launched a pilot over the summer of 2021 to see how it affected his staff's work and personal lives — and said it was a resounding success.

He recognizes some employers might be concerned about productivity, but he said there hasn't been an issue getting things done. His team is flexible with its hours and still makes it to meetings and to court, he says.

Sahota said business owners need to start changing the way they think about labour.

"The sort of antagonistic relationship between labour and capital does not any longer need to be at the fore," he told CBC's On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

"We should think about different ways to organize our socio-economic system to prioritize the human element as opposed to this ever increasing need for productivity."

According to 4 Day Week, 63 per cent of businesses it has worked with have found it easier to attract and retain employees under the four-day model.

"If folks like their jobs, enjoy the kind of work that they do, the people that they represent, and the atmosphere vis à vis their colleagues, then I don't think you need someone to constantly monitor and manage how much time they're spending working," Sahota added.

In Thunder Bay, Ont., the environmental non-profit EcoSuperior recently switched to a four-day work week.

Executive director Sue Hamel said the COVID-19 pandemic got her thinking about how the organization could better serve the wellbeing of her staff.

"It's not a cost-saving measure, it's actually what I call a value-added measure," said Hamel, who adds she has noted an improvement in the mental and physical health of the entire staff, including herself, and that productivity has actually improved thanks to a flexible work schedule.

Others in Canada experimenting with a four-day work week include Toronto-based recruitment firm the Leadership Agency; Tulip Inc., a software company in Kitchener, Ont.; and the District of Guysborough in Nova Scotia.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Wider benefits to society 

Amanda Watson, a sociology lecturer at Simon Fraser University with a particular interest in the culture of capitalism, says the project that's started in the U.K. has been a "long time coming."

Watson was particularly happy to see a restaurant included in that study, saying it's important to include workers that are already the most "time poor" and the most wage poor, rather than simply office professionals.

She said giving people another day off would have beneficial effects on society as a whole.

For example, she said, with an extra day off, if she needed to buy shorts for the summer she'd be able to go to a thrift store or buy a used pair from a local business. Without that extra time, she would probably end up ordering online from a fast-fashion company and having them shipped.

"If we could be less time poor, we actually might be able to live more according to our values," she said.

Labour laws are socially constructed, Watson said, so there's no reason why they can't be rewritten for a more modern society.

In order for that change to happen here in B.C., workers will have to guide the change, companies will have to be flexible and lawmakers will need to regulate the work week, she said.

In 2020, B.C. Premier John Horgan said a four-day work week is not "off the table."

A statement Friday from the premier's office and Ministry of Labour said while there are no plans at this time for legislative changes that would require a four-day work week, employers are certainly able to make those changes themselves.

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