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Post-Covid-19 Workplace: 4-days work week could become a reality

  • Published at 01:09 pm June 23rd, 2020
Essential workers queue up to have their noses swabbed before returning to the workforce at a regional screening center amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak in Singapore June 9, 2020 Reuters

That structure, they said, would not only improve a work-life balance, but boost productivity among employees

It's only been days since a small Nova Scotia municipality launched a four-day condensed work week pilot project, but according to the chief administrative officer, so far, so good.

The nine-month project, developed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, allows the municipality's core employees to work the same number of hours over a period of four days, known to many as a compressed work week, reports CBC.

"Our staff seem to be extra excited about the new work system," said Barry Carroll, Chief Administrative Officer for the Municipality of the District of Guysborough. "We had some minor adjustments to make, obviously, but otherwise it's been pretty seamless."

Familiar concept gains new attention

While the compressed work week is not a new concept, it has been given some renewed attention since Covid-19 changed the way people work. For many, that includes more flexible hours and working from home.

"What [the pandemic] has shown organizations is that people can work in different work situations," said Erica Carleton, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Saskatchewan.

"They'll get their work done. You don't need your boss sitting on top of you to finish your work."

However, some experts and researchers suggest employers should consider another type of four-day work week, one that allows employees to work fewer hours and get paid their same weekly salary.

That structure, they said, would not only improve a work-life balance, but boost productivity among employees.

New Zealand PM suggests employers consider 4-day work week

The idea of a four-day work week recently gained a bit more steam after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern mused about it in a Facebook live chat, saying that it certainly would help domestic tourism, as more flexible working arrangements could allow New Zealanders to travel more within their own country.

Last year, Microsoft Japan went to a four-day work week, closing its offices every Friday in August, while paying their employees the same as if they had worked the full five days. The company said that as a result, labor productivity rose by nearly 40 per cent compared to August 2018.

Last year, the UK-based University of Readings Henley Business School surveyed 505 business leaders and more than 2,000 employees across the country, including over 250 businesses that currently operate with a four-day working week.

The survey found that of those businesses that have already adopted a four-day working week, nearly two-thirds have reported improvements in staff productivity. And more than three quarters of staff working in that environment reported they were happier, less stressed and took fewer days off.

Fallacy of longer work weeks

"The main fallacy on longer work week is to assume a linear relationship between the amount of time worked and the productivity of an employee," Thomas Roulet, a researcher on the project, told CBC News in an email.

"An employee can do more in four days than in five, if she/he is more focused, in better shape mentally and physically." He said it's very likely that the Covid-19 crisis will accelerate the move to a shorter or more flexible work week, enabled by more people working remotely.

Cutting back on non-work activities

While it may be the worst-kept secret in offices, Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done, said the reality is "that when people are in the office for 40 hours, they almost never actually put in 40 hours."

"If you had the same amount of work you had to get done, but you had 36 hours to do it instead of 40, they would do less of the stuff that filled time that isn't your job."

She said that employers should be fixating less on the hours and more on what their employees are getting done.

Decrease in productivity

Chris Higgins, professor emeritus at Western University's Ivey Business School, said studies have shown that a compressed four-day work week, while popular with employees, leads to a decrease in productivity when it comes to blue-collar jobs.

"A lot of these jobs are physical labor jobs. And, you know, when you start working 10-hour shifts instead of eight-hour shifts ... sometimes you're physically drained."

Also, longer shifts could negatively impact an employee's time after work, leaving them less time to engage in extracurricular activities or spend time with their families, Carleton said.

Some employers had trouble implementing shorter work weeks. For example, London-based Welcome Trust, the world's second-biggest research donor, ended a four-day week for 800 of its head offices staff, finding it was "too operationally complex to implement."

Meanwhile, some business groups have warned such a structure could increase the cost of labor.

"The move from five to four days a week is not adapted to all occupations, tasks and jobs — it's basically useful to non-routine, social and high-value tasks that will benefit from healthier, more balanced and more focused employees."

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