In the summer of 2019, Microsoft Japan did a one-month experiment: employees were asked to work a four-day week instead of their usual five, without a reduction in pay. That experiment led to a 40 per cent rise in productivity and happier employees. It also led to workers taking less time off and a reduction in workspace costs.
“Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot,” Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano said in a statement at the time. “I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20 per cent less working time.”
Numerous experiments at companies around the world have proved much of the same: when we move to a shorter work week, we are far more efficient and our mental health improves as we gain leisure time to spend with family and friends or engage in healthier habits and hobbies. Distractions are eliminated and lengthy, needless meetings become more focused. Unemployment rates also fall and carbon footprints are reduced, as are overhead costs.
There is also an astounding amount of research that goes back decades proving that a five-day work week is actually detrimental to our health and results in high stress levels, fatigue, low motivation and job satisfaction, poor sleep and even cardiovascular disease.
As the pandemic continues and many workplaces have moved to working from home, it’s clear occupational norms are changing and proving to be far more malleable than employers might have believed.
“Change is hard and people tend to resist it even if data supports the benefits,” explains John Trougakos, associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto. “Especially for things we have done for so long. The idea that working less will lead to greater efficiency and productivity is counterintuitive for people and thus they are quick to reject the idea. Data supports that the most productive people actually work less and rest more than people who are less productive. But when they are working they are doing it with more energy, efficiency and they make less mistakes because they are more mentally alert and energized.”
Employers are also used to a lot more control over their employees, something they are experiencing less of now, which also suggests this may be the ideal time to keep the changes coming. In fact, one Nova Scotia municipality is moving to a four-day work week this week.
However, just as working from home cannot apply to everyone, neither does a shortened work week. For those to whom this is more applicable, their roles are likely more independent and they are part of an organization, as opposed to an individual who, for example, works in a factory, retail or personal care.
“The kind of work we’re talking about is individually tailored to that person’s training and expertise,” says Esther Greenglass, a psychology professor at York University. “And there, productivity is measured in unconventional ways. It’s not measured in the number of boxes they’re producing per hour, but maybe in terms of the uniqueness of their ideas. So compared to the past, what we’re looking at is a more individualized structure. Individuals are having more of a say in terms of the work they do, where they do it, when they do it.”
Those industries that require more of a presence tend to employ more marginalized people who are often paid less, work in poorer conditions and must commute. This is the same demographic that has largely been unable to work from home and is being far more impacted by the pandemic itself.
“These are people with less education, some who can’t speak the language, who have less control over their working conditions, and cannot work at home or rewrite their role,” adds Greenglass. “It’s all socio-economically related. They can’t negotiate with their employers because the employer has all the power and control, but people with money can choose to work from home and they can do it while at their cottage.”
According to a recent Angus Reid poll, 47 per cent of Canadians say they would prefer a 30-hour work week over a 40-hour one. If that is not an option, 68 per cent say they would prefer to work four 10-hour shifts in a week rather than five eight-hour segments.
“The potential for a shorter work week may not apply to all industries, but data shows that at least 40 per cent of jobs would be able to adopt this and helping 40 per cent of workers is better than none,” says Trougakos, who recently collected data that found only 17 per cent of Canadians want to go back to work the way they did before lockdown began.
“Even jobs we might not think could have shorter work weeks may be able to if companies are creative and aren’t afraid to maintain wages, and add staff if necessary in order to increase productivity and improve their workers’ lives. If designed and implemented effectively, the cost savings and increased productivity will more than make up the difference.”
It’s also inevitable that many might want to work more hours, for more pay (and thereby might even take on additional jobs) or simply because that’s how we’ve been programmed to work. Consider France, where the standard week moved to 35 hours in 2000. Many workers are putting in the same hours they always did in an effort to complete their work. While they are paid overtime, that becomes an additional expense for companies. And if workers are not meeting their requirements to begin with, that’s more cost. There’s also the fear that once employers see that workers are getting more done in less time, workloads will grow.
All of this suggests that we are also in need of a mental shift when it comes to work, which, in North America, is something of an addiction. Prior to the pandemic, stress and burnout alone were costing companies billions in lost productivity, sick leave and turnover.
“We’re very proud of what we do when we meet somebody for the first time. The first thing people ask is, ‘What do you do?'” says Greenglass. “Our pride in our sense of accomplishment is what drives us. And the competition these days for jobs is very fierce. If you want to get a job and hold on to it, you have to be a super achiever, and often that means working extra hours. Add in social media, and the fact that we’re always connected. This makes it easy to work all the time, because you can’t turn it off. Along with societal pressures and a job shortage, people feel they don’t have any choice but to work all the time.”
The way we psychologically and organizationally approach work, then, goes hand in hand. If we move to shorter work weeks, that will eventually give way to healthier mindsets and work dynamics.
For the change to begin, it will be the larger companies who will have to lead the way, encouraging others to find a competitive edge and follow, resulting in many feeling an autonomy in their roles for the very first time.