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Rural Ontario municipalities are adopting the 4-day work week. What does it take to get others on board?

Algonquin Highlands is one of a handful of small municipalities in rural Ontario that have started offering their employees the option of a four-day work week. The mayor says it's necessary to keep up with what employees want.  (Submitted by Township of Algonquin Highlands - image credit)
Algonquin Highlands is one of a handful of small municipalities in rural Ontario that have started offering their employees the option of a four-day work week. The mayor says it's necessary to keep up with what employees want. (Submitted by Township of Algonquin Highlands - image credit)

Algonquin Highlands will soon be the latest small-town municipality in rural Ontario to convert to a four-day work week.

Starting in March, the cottage country destination will join the townships of Aylmer, Zorra, Springwater and French River — all which made the same move in recent years in a bid to boost work-life balance and attract and retain staff.

Providing this option, along with other flexible arrangements like remote work, is necessary to keep up with what employees want, says Algonquin Highlands Mayor Liz Danielsen.

"Since COVID, people are looking for a different way of approaching life," said Danielsen. Her town, some 220 kilometres west of Ottawa, houses roughly 2,500 people but surges during the summer tourist season.

"We want to be seen as a dynamic and progressive employer when we are looking for people, and I think this will go a long way to help that."

Data released last week in the U.K. supports what Danielsen says. Researchers found an overwhelming majority of over 60 companies — which took part in what was reportedly the world's largest four-day reduced work week trial — will continue with the shorter week for similar reasons.

While municipalities are going forward with the compressed work week instead, one work expert says it's just one way different industries can mould the overall concept of the four-day work week to fit their unique needs.

In Algonquin Highlands, about 95 per cent of the town's staff have opted to work longer work days in exchange for a day off after a seven-month trial period. Not only was this a morale booster, but it had minimal impact on services, Danielsen says.

"I think that that's something that you'll see more and more as time goes by, especially when others can see that it's working successfully."

What does it take?

Before the pandemic, four-day work arrangements were common for specific city roles, says David Arbuckle, the executive director of the volunteer-run Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario.

But since COVID-19 hit, Arbuckle says conversations on making those arrangements more widespread started to "creep" throughout northern and rural Ontario — areas where employee burnout and turnover are big challenges made worse by municipalities and the private sector competing for the same talent pool.

"We're certainly supportive of our members and for our municipalities to move in that direction," said Arbuckle.

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While four-day weeks can be difficult depending on the size of the community, the potential for this model to work in other, bigger municipalities and beyond Ontario is already there, Arbuckle says. Saint John and the District of Guysborough, N.S., have also already made the switch.

The main challenges are making sure employees get equitable access to this arrangement — four-day weeks are easier to implement for office staff than those in the field — that things like union contracts are accounted for, and that cities can maintain or exceed service expectations for residents, says Arbuckle.

To ensure this, residents in Zorra, a township some 30 kilometres northeast of London, Ont., got an extra hour to access services each day. Alycia Wettlaufer, the town's deputy clerk, says both employees and residents benefit from the change.

"Residents have been able to get all their questions answered and their needs met the same that they would when we were all working the five-day, if not better," said Wettlaufer.

Submitted by Alycia Wettlaufer
Submitted by Alycia Wettlaufer

While it was a challenge getting used to the longer days and working around everyone's different schedules, things changed for the better, she says. She can't imagine leaving for a job that doesn't offer the same flexibility, and says other cities and industries would benefit from exploring a switch.

"The younger generation, we look for more alternative work arrangements and for things that are different than the typical nine to five," said Wettlaufer, 28.

"I think that it is so great for work life balance and I just couldn't imagine going back."

Are other sectors interested?

John Trougakos, a consultant and researcher with the Work Time Reduction Centre of Excellence, says municipalities are taking part in a compressed work week model, which squeezes the same total number of hours worked over four days rather than five.

This method makes sense for the public sector because no matter what changes it makes, it still needs to be accountable to the public, he says.

It remains to be seen how many of Ontario's 444 municipalities might make the change. But Trougakos says the four-day work week as a whole is likely to pick up as Canada continues to come out of the pandemic.

"You're still going to have some organizations try to, for example, push people back into the office full-time, or forget about a work-time reduction model like a four-day work week," said Trougakos, who's also a management professor at the University of Toronto.

"But by and large, the companies that are going to be more effective and the companies that are going to see, I think, greater success, are going to find ways to implement various principles related to these issues."

Beyond municipalities, Trougakos says some in the service industry, along with manufacturing and the information sectors, are already embracing this model. In order to successfully implement a new way of work, each industry needs to carefully plan on what works best for their sector and workers, he says.

It's all an important shift compared to a decade ago, when people thought a four-day week was "some crazy idea," he said. But now?

"We're actually finding out that it is feasible."