Countries Experiment with Four-Day Workweek

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin May 11, 2021
LIKE SAVE
a worker holding a notebook that says four-day week on its cover

The four-day workweek received a notable boost recently when Spain announced a pilot project for employers interested in a trial run of the concept. Companies in other countries, including Japan and New Zealand, also have tested four-day workweeks.

Early this year, the deputy of Spain's progressive Más País party, which has promoted the idea, tweeted that the government had agreed to the pilot.

Spanish daily newspaper El Comercio and other outlets have reported that the government will distribute 50 million euros (approximately $60.13 million) among 200 companies that volunteer to test a four-day, 32-hour workweek for 3,000 to 6,000 employees in Spain for up to three years.

The funds initially will cover all expenses that employers incur as a result of the new work hours, such as hiring additional people or adopting new technology to maintain or increase productivity, according to the reports.

"It's a reasonably progressive policy that is aligned with previous government efforts … to cultivate a more employee-friendly and competitive business environment," said J. Bruce Tracey, a professor of human resource management at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"There is evidence that this type of work schedule increases productivity and reduces costs associated with burnout, stress, absenteeism, turnover and related employee challenges," he said, adding that the shorter week nonetheless may not work in every industry or job situation.

"From a competitiveness standpoint, employers who are successful in developing an effective four-day workweek scheduling system will gain a clear and compelling advantage from an attraction and retention standpoint," Tracey said.

Besides boosting productivity and morale, the four-day workweek also could improve the environment as workers use less energy at work and on their commutes, according to proponents.

Idea Tested

While far from the norm in the industrialized world, the four-day workweek idea has gained some acceptance in both the private and public sectors.

In 2019, Microsoft tested a four-day workweek through a "Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer" in Japan, with employees given five Fridays off with no pay cut. The company wanted to see if giving employees flexible work style choices to "work in a short time, take a good rest and learn well," would boost productivity and creativity.

Microsoft reported that productivity, or sales per employee, climbed by nearly 40 percent in August 2019 compared with the previous year, although the company indicated other factors had contributed. Power consumption fell by 23 percent, and more than 90 percent of workers liked the change, Microsoft said.

In 2018, New Zealand estate planning firm Perpetual Guardian tested a four-day workweek, paying staff for 37.5 hours but requiring only 30 hours and the same work output. Based on the results, which included reduced stress and better employee engagement, Perpetual Guardian established a four-day week on a long-term, voluntary basis.

Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes also helped launch a nonprofit global community, made up of business, union, political and academic leaders, dedicated to promoting the four-day workweek.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last year suggested employers consider flexible work options, including a four-day week, to help employees amid the coronavirus outbreak. Before taking her post, Finland Prime Minister Sanna Marin also raised the four-day workweek concept.

Productivity Improvements

Several European countries with shorter working hours have shown greater productivity than nations with overworked employees, according to Gita Bhargava, co-founder and chief operating officer of San Jose, Calif.-based Global Upside, a staffing and corporate services firm with clients in more than 170 countries. She noted that businesses in many European countries already shut down for weeks at a time during summer and winter holidays. "If the country decides that is how they want to be, it just falls in place," she said.

The four-day workweek should help keep employees mentally healthy, happy and loyal, improving productivity and saving companies' training costs, she said. It might also help address the gender gap by affording more flexibility to working mothers, she added.

Companies that adopt a four-day workweek may choose from different options for making it work, possibly using rotating shifts, letting employees choose which four days they'll work or hiring people to work a fifth day, Bhargava noted. Her company, which employs a global workforce, doesn't use a four-day week but operates in three shifts, with workers choosing which one they'll work, she said.

Logistically, companies can use tools such as AI-driven software to ease scheduling and even eliminate this task from supervisory and managerial roles, freeing leaders to "engage in more value-adding revenue generation or cost-saving activities," Cornell University's Tracey added.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

He suggested that employers approach the four-day week with a data-driven lens, conducting considerable cost-benefit analysis by location, job type and other factors. "What works for some doesn't work for others," said Tracey, who expects mixed results long term from Spain's pilot program.

While there will be evidence that the shorter week improves productivity and morale and reduces absenteeism and turnover, he said, "there will also be evidence that this kind of HR policy may in fact reduce productivity and be more costly."

In the hotel industry, for example, "housekeepers can only clean a defined number of rooms in an eight-hour shift. If you reduce the number of rooms that a housekeeper cleans, you'll need to hire additional housekeepers or invest in evolving room and public space cleaning technology to make up the difference," Tracey explained.

"So while cleaning fewer rooms may help reduce housekeeper stress, burnout, absenteeism and turnover, as well as reduce health risks associated with physically demanding work, the financial costs associated with sourcing, hiring, training and retaining additional housekeeping staff may outweigh the benefits," he said.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance reporter and writer based in Philadelphia.

LIKE SAVE

SHRM HR JOBS

Hire the best HR talent or advance your own career.

SHRM CONNECT

Find your peers in SHRM's online community.

Find your peers in SHRM's online community.

Join SHRM Connect

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.