Are Shorter Workweeks Good for Business?

Two experts debate the issue.

By Jack Kelly and Tashia Mallette, SHRM-SCP November 23, 2022
LIKE SAVE
yes
It’s time to adopt better and more-efficient ways to work.

Jack Kelly

It may seem counterintuitive, but abbreviated workweeks are good for employees, customers and the bottom line. The traditional schedule of working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, isn’t necessarily the best model. It’s time to adopt broader workplace innovations—including shorter workweeks.

The pandemic made people realize there are better and more-efficient ways to work. Companies looking to capitalize on this revelation are providing employees with four-day workweeks, flexible schedules, and the autonomy to work where and when they want—either as digital nomads or in hybrid work arrangements.

The pandemic also led to rising levels of employee stress, anxiety and burnout. Prolonged, unrelenting pressures can lead workers to experience emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. If employees feel depleted, they cannot perform their jobs to the best of their abilities and are more likely to become jaded and disengaged. Instead of forcing a person to be chained to a computer for an arbitrary time period, organizations can help relieve workers’ stress and free them to do their best work by offering shortened workweeks, among other things.

A shortened workweek does not mean there will be less worker output. When employees have freedom, they feel appreciated and respected—and they are engaged. According to research from 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit coalition that advocates reduced working hours, 78 percent of employees with four-day workweeks reported being happier and less stressed. 

Moreover, 63 percent of businesses using the four-day model find it easier to attract and retain talent, according to the research. Companies that invest in worker health and well-being can also expect employees to take fewer sick and mental health days. 

Iceland, Scotland, Belgium, Spain and other countries, as well as some global companies, have instituted four-day workweeks on a trial basis. The results have been encouraging. Employees not only have maintained the same or higher levels of productivity over fewer hours, but also have reported increased job satisfaction, teamwork, work/life balance and company loyalty.

Iceland’s trial of the shortened workweek, run by the Reykjavík City Council and the national government, has been an overwhelming success. Worker well-being flourished across a range of indicators, including perceived stress, burnout, health and work/life balance. As a result of the trial’s positive results, 86 percent of Iceland’s workers now work reduced hours for the same pay or will gain the right to do so. 

In Japan, which is known for having high expectations in terms of work ethic, Microsoft Japan offered its 2,300 employees shorter workweeks. The company’s Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 program gave employees the opportunity to “choose a variety of flexible work styles, according to the circumstances of work and life.” Management wanted to see if there would be a corresponding increase in productivity and morale. The results? Workers were both happier and 40 percent more productive. 

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., introduced a bill last year that would have reduced the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 for companies with more than 500 employees. Takano said at the time that “pilot programs run by governments and businesses across the globe have shown promising results, as productivity climbed and workers reported better work/life balance, less need to take sick days, heightened morale, and lower child care expenses because they had more time with their family and children.”

There’s little doubt that workers value shorter workweeks—and that can be good for U.S. business.

Jack Kelly is CEO and founder of New York City-based Compliance Search Group and WeCruitr, which he started in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to help people in need find jobs. He is a senior contributor for Forbes.



no

The problem is the way work is done, not the number of hours worked.

Tashia Mallette, SHRM-SCP


Employers have a tremendous opportunity to transform the future of work, but they should think twice about shortening the workweek.

The truth is, achieving a meaningful workplace transformation could be a heavy lift, as Industrial Age practices and mindsets still exist today. Outdated beliefs and personal biases about in-person work and productivity surfaced prominently during the pandemic as organizations literally lost sight of their employees and struggled to define measures of success for their displaced workforces.

But the pandemic also gave many workers the ability to work remotely or in a hybrid capacity for the first time. The McKinsey & Co. American Opportunity Survey found that 58 percent of respondents can now work remotely at least one day per week. That puts employers in a unique position to help meet their employees’ needs for work/life balance—without shortening the workweek and worrying about decreased productivity or the effect on the bottom line.

Programs that support work/life balance typically provide big returns in retention, attraction and engagement that will help employers compete for workers. Employees consistently rank these programs highly. In a recent Forbes Health-Ipsos monthly tracker poll, workers said work/life balance is the second most important aspect of their job, just below financial security.

Better work/life balance can also reduce the devastating effects that chronic stress has on employees’ physical and mental health, regardless of how many hours they work. The prevalence of work-induced stress accelerated by the pandemic will only increase further if employees are required to do the same amount of work in less time.

Work-related stress is a symptom of deeper organizational design problems. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health suggests that employers act to reduce causes of stress by routinely reviewing workers’ job designs, workloads, schedules, roles and responsibilities. 

Company leaders might also consider replacing the output-based productivity work model, which is a relic of the Industrial Age. Deloitte and other consultancies suggest that organizations use an outcome-centric approach to drive effectiveness, efficiency and empowerment across the organization.

As part of that, managers would shift from micromanaging the how, when and where work is performed to ensuring the work gets done. When that happens, studies show, employees feel more empowered and productive. The time managers spend managing output can be reallocated to activities such as coaching and development. There never seems to be enough time in the day, and shortening the workweek could further limit the valuable time managers have for themselves and their staffs.

The 40-hour workweek also provides an important platform for employers to help enrich the lives of their employees and communities through company-sponsored initiatives centered on diversity, equity and inclusion; volunteerism; and humanitarianism. According to research from America’s Charities, 71 percent of surveyed employees say it is imperative or very important that they work at an employer where the culture is supportive of giving and volunteering. Employers that offer these types of programs experience higher levels of engagement and retention as employees find meaning and purpose through work.

Shortening the workweek may reduce employers’ ability to offer these programs during paid work time. That would likely cause a reduction in employee participation, and worthy causes could experience a drop in awareness, funding and volunteers.

There are many ways to give workers what they need. Employers would be wise to consider whether shorter workweeks are really necessary.

Tashia Mallette, SHRM-SCP, is the founder and principal chief people officer at HR Exchange Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm providing fractional chief people officer services to companies experiencing rapid growth or transformation.

LIKE SAVE

SHRM HR JOBS

Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

2022 Year-End Benefit Plan & Payroll Checklists

Administering employee benefit plans can mean daunting year-end tasks. Our collection of checklists can help.

Administering employee benefit plans can mean daunting year-end tasks. Our collection of checklists can help.

Learn More

SPONSOR OFFERS

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.