Four-day workweek gains traction despite pushback

Mark Takano introduced a bill that would reduce the standard workweek to 32 hours

The long weekend of Labor Day could become standard if the four-day workweek catches on.

Many U.S. companies are experimenting with a shortened workweek amid pandemic-related concerns about workplace norms while legislation calling for a 32-hour workweek has been introduced in Congress.

“As we consider what work should look like beyond this pandemic, we need to find new ways to achieve harmony across our professions, our passions, and our personal lives,” Aziz Hasan, CEO of the crowdfunding firm Kickstarter, wrote in a blog post in July.

Beginning next year, Kickstarter’s 90 full-time employees will work four, eight-hour days as part of a pilot program.

Meanwhile, the software and data firm Elephant Ventures, which has offices in New York and San Francisco, shifted to a four-day, 40-hour workweek in November after completing a 90-day pilot last year.

Elephant Ventures sales director Jonathan Cook said having Fridays off allows him to catch up on personal commitments that he had struggled to meet in the new pandemic normal.

“Previously, [I] felt like I was always working or watching kids, including weekends, and now Friday is a nice break,” Mr. Cook said. “I think longer workdays has, for many folks, myself included, improved productivity by improving meeting culture.”

Job postings mentioning four-day workweeks in August climbed about 75% compared to the same month in 2016, according to data from the employment website Indeed.

Last month, there were 1,162 four-day workweek jobs per 1 million compared to 657 per 1 million five years ago. Compared to August 2020, four-day workweek jobs from last month were 16% higher, up from 1,003 jobs per 1 million.

And one lawmaker is pushing for shorter workweeks. Rep. Mark Takano, California Democrat, introduced in late July legislation that would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours and allow non-exempt employees to clock in overtime for any hours worked beyond that limit.

Boston College sociology professor Juliet B. Schor told CNBC she thinks the four-day workweek will grow more popular due to the cultural shift brought on by the pandemic, which highlighted overwork and burnout as challenges to mental health.

Middle-class workers, many of whom had to balance work with caring for their children or parents, will be the first to experience the shift before it gains traction, Ms. Schor said.

Uncharted, which assists social impact startups, reported no decreases in performance and less stress among employees when the Denver company shifted to a four-day, 32-hour workweek last September, after having experimented with the shorter schedule from June through August 2020.

Benefits of a shorter workweek could include an increase in productivity, an equal workplace and an increase in engagement, according to SpriggHR, a performance management platform.

But downsides could include poor management and benefits to competitors due to skipped workdays, the platform noted, adding truncated schedules cater to certain industries but not all.

Others have expressed concerns about condensed workweeks.

Allard Dembe, a public health professor at Ohio State University who has studied the health effects of working long hours, says he is not convinced that a four-day workweek benefits workers or businesses.

“The primary problem with the idea is that whatever work needs to be done, needs to get done in the same amount of total time,” Mr. Dembe wrote in a 2019 OSU blog post.

“The math is simple: working five eight-hour shifts is equivalent to working four 10-hour shifts. That’s true. But the implications of these schedules are different,” he said. “The danger is in disregarding the health effects that can occur as a result of fatigue and stress that accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day.”

Marc Effron, president of the Talent Strategy Group, argues that shorter workweeks aren’t more productive.

“The companies lauded for shorter weeks all self-reported happier, less stressed employees and the same amount of productivity,” Mr. Effron wrote in a TalentQ blog post last year. “But that means the employees didn’t accomplish anything more; they just did the exact same thing in less time. Their shorter work improved nothing for their customers, suppliers, or shareholders.”

Other countries are testing the four-day workweek.

Spain agreed to finance companies who choose to try out a 32-hour workweek for its workers but without lowering their pay, The Guardian reported in March.

In New Zealand, Unilever said in November that it would test a four-day workweek for its 81 employees until December 2021, but still pay them for five days, according to Reuters.

Microsoft Japan made headlines in 2019 when it experimented with a four-day workweek and reported a 40% increase in productivity.

The five-day, 40-hour workweek has been the standard for less than 100 years. In the late 19th century, labor unions and organized trades began demanding eight-hour workdays as they rallied for better work conditions.

The idea gained traction in 1926, when the Ford Motor Co. became one of the first U.S. companies to adopt a five-day, 40-hour workweek. About a decade later, the federal government passed the Fair Labors Standards Act in 1938.