- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2021

The long Labor Day weekend could become standard if the four-day workweek catches on.

Many U.S. companies are experimenting with a shortened workweek because of pandemic-related concerns, and legislation calling for a 32-hour workweek has been introduced in Congress.

“As we consider what work should look like beyond this pandemic, we need to find new ways to achieve harmony across our professions, our passions, and our personal lives,” Aziz Hasan, CEO of the crowdfunding firm Kickstarter, wrote in a blog post in July.

Beginning next year, Kickstarter’s 90 full-time employees will work four, eight-hour days as part of a pilot program.

Meanwhile, the software and data firm Elephant Ventures, which has staff in New York and San Francisco, shifted to a four-day, 40-hour workweek in November after completing a 90-day pilot last year.

Jonathan Cook, Elephant Ventures sales director, said having Fridays off allows him to catch up on personal commitments that he struggled to meet in the new pandemic normal.

“Previously, [I] felt like I was always working or watching kids, including weekends, and now Friday is a nice break,” Mr. Cook said. “I think longer workdays has, for many folks, myself included, improved productivity by improving meeting culture.”

August job postings mentioning four-day workweeks climbed about 75% — 1,162 per 1 million compared with 657 per 1 million — from the same month in 2016, according to data from employment website Indeed. The number of jobs with four-day workweeks posted last month was 16% higher than the 1,003 jobs per 1 million a year earlier.

In late July, Rep. Mark Takano, California Democrat, introduced legislation that would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours and allow nonexempt employees to clock in overtime for any hours they work beyond that limit.

Boston College sociology professor Juliet B. Schor told CNBC that she thinks the four-day workweek will become more popular because of a cultural shift. The pandemic, she said, highlighted overwork and burnout as challenges to mental health.

Middle-class workers, many who had to balance work with caring for children or parents, would be the first to benefit, Ms. Schor said.

Uncharted, a Denver company that assists social impact startups, reported no decrease in performance and less stress among employees when it shifted to a four-day, 32-hour workweek last September. The company experimented with the shorter schedule from June through August 2020.

A shorter workweek could result in more productivity, an equal workplace and an increase in engagement, according to SpriggHR, a performance management platform. Downsides might include poor management and less market competitiveness in some industries.

Talk about condensed workweeks has raised some concerns.

Allard Dembe, who has worked as a public health professor at Ohio State University and studied the health effects of working long hours, said he is not convinced that the four-day workweek benefits workers or businesses. 

“The primary problem with the idea is that whatever work needs to be done needs to get done in the same amount of total time,” Mr. Dembe wrote in a 2019 OSU blog post.

“The math is simple: working five eight-hour shifts is equivalent to working four 10-hour shifts. That’s true. But the implications of these schedules are different,” he said. “The danger is in disregarding the health effects that can occur as a result of fatigue and stress that accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day.”

Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group, said shorter workweeks aren’t more productive.

“The companies lauded for shorter weeks all self-reported happier, less stressed employees and the same amount of productivity,” Mr. Effron wrote in a TalentQ blog post last year. “But that means the employees didn’t accomplish anything more; they just did the exact same thing in less time. Their shorter work improved nothing for their customers, suppliers, or shareholders.”

Employers in other countries are testing the four-day workweek.

Spain agreed to finance companies that try a 32-hour workweek without lowering employees’ pay, The Guardian reported in March.

In New Zealand, Unilever said in November that it would test a four-day workweek for its 81 employees until this December. The pay is still equal to five days, Reuters reported.

Microsoft Japan made headlines in 2019 when it experimented with a four-day workweek and reported a 40% increase in productivity.

The five-day, 40-hour workweek has been the standard for less than 100 years. In the late 19th century, labor unions and organized trades began demanding eight-hour workdays as they rallied for better working conditions.

The idea gained traction in 1926 when the Ford Motor Co. adopted a five-day, 40-hour workweek. In 1938, the federal government passed the Fair Labors Standards Act.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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