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The Case for a Four-Day Workweek

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After more than a century of a one-size-fits-all standard, organizations are now encouraged to consider other models that could better suit their needs. No, I’m not talking about remote and hybrid work — though they remain important areas of consideration — I’m talking about the Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five standard.

Though rarely taken seriously before the pandemic, the prospect of a shorter workweek has gradually entered the mainstream, aided by a growing body of research that finds different models can yield promising results under the right circumstances.

Researchers at Boston College, for example, noted some significant benefits among the 41 companies that switched to a four-day workweek as part of a North American pilot program¹, which included several Canadian participants.

They found burnout rates among staff members dropped by 17%, and employees reported significant improvements to their mental and physical health. Researchers also found that work-life balance among participants shot up an average of 35%.

Not only did the switch to a shorter workweek improve the lives of employees, but it also offered some direct benefits to their employers. Participating organizations reported an average revenue increase of 15% during the pilot period, as well as a 25% drop in absenteeism, along with significant boosts to their recruitment and retention efforts.

To many observers, however, the most telling statistic of the experiment is that employees spent 15% less time on internal and administrative tasks. This data point demonstrates a crucial and often overlooked feature of such programs.

Cutting working hours alone often only serves to increase work intensity. To make the four-day workweek a success, organizations must first engage in a concerted effort to streamline employee productivity such that they can do more in less time while incentivizing their participation with the prospect of a shorter workweek.

Over the years researchers, observers and pilot participants have come to understand that workers spend a lot of their time on tasks that don’t provide direct value² to the organization. Whether it’s sick days or meetings, inefficient processes or layers of red tape, employees often know where roadblocks and bottlenecks are found, but have little incentive to combat them. Traditionally, the only reward for improving efficiency was higher expectations and more work.

The four-day workweek, however, is an acknowledgment that when staff are given a big enough incentive — and with the right support, technology tools and corporate culture — they can do more with less. For example, organizations seeking to transition to a four-day workweek often look for time-consuming tasks that can be automated, onboard new tools to manage their administrative needs and encourage staff to say no to meetings they feel aren’t necessary. They’re also empowered to proactively make any changes to their workflows for greater productivity without seeking permission.

“Some of the greatest enablers of a successful switch to a shorter workweek include a culture of trust, and an embrace of new, productivity-enhancing technologies,” said Stacey Litwin-Davies, the Principal of Cresa, responsible for consulting services. “Organizations need to spend the necessary time to engage their staff in a ruthless productivity optimizing campaign before attempting to reduce working hours, but those who do so successfully stand to gain a lot in return.”

Like hybrid work, a reduced working hours program isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Different organizations may choose to pursue a four-day workweek for different reasons, and depending on their strategy, are likely to see different results.

For example, some implement a four-day workweek that adds an extra two hours to each day. Others might begin with a “summer Fridays” schedule and gradually extend it throughout the year. Some find the prospect of a six-hour workday more appealing, or practical, than the four-day workweek. Some who pursue the four-day workweek close their offices for one extra day, while others stagger schedules to ensure the office is staffed for five days.

Toronto-based Ross Firm, for example, wanted to implement a four-day workweek, but the law firm couldn’t afford to shut down for one extra day each week. Instead, founder and principal Quinn Ross told the Globe and Mail³ that he implemented a staggered schedule to ensure it was fully staffed at all times. Doing so, he explained, required a thorough audit of the company’s practices in search of efficiencies, new technologies that could improve productivity and a more collaborative approach to client management, making it easier for staff to fill in for absent colleagues.

“As companies implement new technologies for productivity while layering a new definition of the workweek on top of other work strategies such as hybrid the equation of what a company requires in the quantum and layout of their physical office are destined for change” shared Jamie Grossman – Managing Principal of Cresa’s Toronto Office. Rather than forcing the issue through costly relocations and renovations, Grossman encourages companies to use their committed time remaining on their leases to experiment, monitor and evaluate the impact of the changes in work on the requirements of the workplace.

The motivation for pursuing a four-day workweek may also shape the design of the program itself. For some organizations, the aim is to improve worker mental health. For others, it’s about retention, and for some, it could be about budgetary constraints. One Ontario school board is even toying with the idea⁴ as a way of giving families more time together.

Despite these experiments and pilots, the four-day workweek is still a fringe idea, at least for now. Even the most adamant supporters will admit that, like hybrid work, the reduced schedule won’t work for every organization, and that such programs require a lot of planning and consideration to implement successfully.

What’s important to recognize is that the Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five standard — like full-time in-office work — is no longer the only option. Organizations can now consider other, creative ways to achieve their strategic goals by tinkering with the boundaries of the workweek. For many, that will bring them back to their current structure, but in asking the question others may find a different arrangement fits them even better.

Sources:
¹ - Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence. 2023, July 26. Studies show that four-day work weeks are a win-win proposition for employers & employees alike, and Canada’s Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence can help companies make them a reality. Cision Canada. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/studies-show-that-four-day-work-weeks-are-a-win-win-proposition-for-employers-amp-employees-alike-and-canada-s-work-time-reduction-center-of-excellence-can-help-companies-make-them-a-reality-801042040.html
² - Jared Lindzon. 2023, May 12. Want a 4-day workweek? Here’s what it would actually take to get there. Fast Company & Inc. https://www.fastcompany.com/90895278/want-4-day-workweek-what-would-actually-take
³ - Jared Lindzon. 2023, February 6. The four-day workweek is going to be a reality, survey suggests. The Globe & Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/careers/article-the-four-day-workweek-is-going-from-experiment-to-inevitability-survey/
⁴ - Rhythm Sachdeva. 2023, April 17. This Ontario School Board Wants A 4-Day Week For Students & It Could Start This Year. Narcity Toronto. https://www.narcity.com/toronto/ontario-school-board-wants-4-day-week-for-students-could-start-this-year



January 8, 2024

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This article is co-authored by Jamie Grossman, Managing Principal, Broker, and Stacey Litwin-Davies, Principal of Consulting in Cresa's Toronto office.

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© 2023 Cresa Toronto Inc., Brokerage

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