The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected employees’ work lives. This has emphasized the importance of flexible work arrangements and implementing a four-day workweek in many countries.
In a four-day workweek employees can modify their work schedules and opt to work four days and get a three-day weekend without a reduction in pay.
Advocates have long suggested that having employees work four days instead of five increases productivity and boosts workplace morale.
As per an MIT study, Iceland implemented a four-day workweek without a pay cut which improved workers’ well-being and productivity. When the parliamentary elections were being held in Scotland last year, first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign included the promise of 10 million pounds for companies to pilot a four-day week, an experiment that’s currently underway. Ireland, too, will test out a four-day workweek for six months this year, and Spain has launched a three-year 32-hour workweek experiment as part of the country’s economic recovery from COVID-19.
But the question is whether these solutions really offer change for workers? Can they help employees and managers rebalance demands? Here’s what leaders need to understand before trying a four-day workweek and the impact it will have on their employees.
Reducing working hours does not necessarily reduce work
Unfortunately, removing access to work does not mean that the work itself is removed. Research shows that people with more intensive workloads tend to worry about work outside of working hours and are unable to switch off until their work problems have been solved. On the other hand, some people want to voluntarily check in on work and keep connected because it worries them more when they do not have oversight of what is going on, which prevents them from feeling in control.
As organizations and governments consider four-day workweeks, it’s important that researchers ask how different types of time off translate into both well-being and performance benefits.
Reducing hours should not increase work intensity
The New Zealand four-day workweek trial found that to fit in their “real work,” employees took shorter breaks and spent less time lingering to socialize in order to resume their measurable tasks.
This reflected differently for every employee: Some employees enjoyed the fast-paced work environment while others felt that the urgency and pressure were elevating their stress levels. But most employees felt that they didn’t have time for chit-chat or creative brainstorming as they were running on a time limit.
This example raises some alarm bells, in that reductions in working days did not necessarily create well-being benefits as workers struggled to meet the demands of their job roles.
Employers may need to be careful about promoting outputs over well-being if they want to be seen as investing in their workforce’s work-life balance.
Finding balance with a four-hour workweek
While the idea of a four-day workweek is appreciated by many employees and employers, unless the details have been outlined it can become difficult to implement and follow.
A good step would be to take a holistic approach, focusing on the long-term well-being of the employees. This is what will increase productivity and translate into happiness. But most importantly employers and HR must start with an honest appraisal of how productivity and time trade-offs impact the well-being of employees.