The number 40 is a big deal for humans – 40 hours, 40 days, 40 weeks, 40 years. It’s a parameter for events in religious texts, the length of human gestation and was once considered the length of a generation for human lives. It’s also very much tied to how we work.
In the U.S. in the 1920s, Henry Ford introduced the 40-hour work week on his assembly lines. Or, rather, the eight-hour work day, five days a week. It has defined large swaths of our lives ever since.
Canada and many other countries adopted a 40-hour work week in the 1920s, as well. In 1999, Ontario added a requirement that high school students complete 40 hours of community service in order to graduate.
Prior to these changes, six-day work weeks of 80 or more hours for blue-collar workers were not unusual. Only the prevalence of Christianity and observing the Sabbath prevented the work week from encompassing all seven days. And domestic help often only got a half-day off on Sundays.
In 1800, average life expectancy globally was only around 30 years. There were a number of contributing factors, of course, but surely one of them was working ourselves into an early grave.
Working (at least) 40 hours a week is ingrained in many of us and has been for some time. X amount of money paid for Y hours of work. But is it necessary?
If you’re paid a salary, your contract probably lists a 40-hour work week or similar, but you’re not working shifts, and I suspect few salaried workers only ever work the exact number of contractually required hours for which they get paid. Even those who have to complete detailed time sheets.
Would it dramatically impact our jobs or productivity if we didn’t work 40 hours a week? Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allotted, implies that it wouldn’t.
Of course, a major spanner in those works is how companies have continually pared down over years or decades, offloading roles onto remaining staff whenever people left instead of replacing them, and implementing years-long hiring freezes for… reasons. Assuming the ability to get “enough” done in a four-day week kind of also assumes you’re getting enough of one job done.
Iceland’s four-year trial of a four-day work week, from 2015-2019, was apparently a roaring success, one now being tried or implemented in a number of companies and countries.
There is some indication that working fewer hours makes people more productive.
Is that because those workers have reset their brains to get All The Things done in that shorter span, so they spend less time doing things other than work while on the clock? Or because longer breaks from work refresh people, so when they are on the job they’re more focused, energetic and healthy, and not always skating toward burnout?
Is this the magic bullet to turn every corporate employee into the equivalent of the 10X developer? (Influencer book with pithy title in 3… 2… 1…)
Or perhaps scaling back working days influences a larger-scale reset that cancels the normalization of just endlessly dumping more on people, which prevents any hope of ever feeling accomplished, or even just done with something and able to truly disconnect from one’s work brain.
Note, too, that in these experiments, employees retained the same salary and benefits; they just work a day less per week. Out of curiosity, did your brain just immediately jump to a perceived outrage of paying people more to do less work? And, if so, are you in management?
If the idea of being equally or more productive working a four-day week seems unlikely or unfathomable, recall that two years ago we had plenty of leaders and managers claiming categorically that a remote-first or remote-only company wasn’t viable. And now look where we are.
Now, is that company/working model right for every person or company? Perhaps not. But implementation can be flexible and customized. Would it make co-ordinating operations a bit trickier if not everyone took the same day off each week? Sure. But we have technology to help with such things.
As someone who’s worked remotely for many years, and with globally distributed teams the entire time, I proclaim that you can make asynchronous communications and disparate time zones work just fine. Not everything has to be done right now. (That would actually make a solid tagline for a four-day work week movement.)
Which potentially freed-up day makes you sigh with longing? Never having another case of the Mondays? Making every weekend a long weekend with Fridays off? Perhaps it’s Wednesdays to coincide with all your kids’ extracurricular activities so you’re not zipping around in a White Rabbit-esque “I’m late!” panic. Costco is actually quite pleasant at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, just FYI.
Or maybe you’d mix it up and use that handy extra day whenever it was most needed or convenient in any given week. And then you’d sync with your co-workers as soon as it worked for everyone. Google Calendar makes it pretty darned easy, really.
How… civilized. And apparently the four-day work week could also be a major cost savings. How? Improved mental and physical health, which is tied to fewer sick and personal days taken, and a reduced environmental footprint, according to this UK study, which estimates the savings at £104 billion annually (a little over CDN$180 billion).
These cultural elements also appear to be growing in importance in attracting and retaining a workforce. Pre-pandemic, we were already seeing shifts in what is valued in corporate culture and policies among younger workers. For them it’s not just about financial compensation.
And we’re seeing it outside of offices right now, with news story after news story covering the service industry’s woes in retaining or hiring staff as pandemic restrictions lift. Can’t say I’m surprised.
Before the pandemic, in far too many cases people treated servers, retail workers and others like crap. And I’m including their employers in that group of “people.” It’s no wonder they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Or, y’know, have just found more stable, less exhausting and soul-destroying work.
We haven’t heard of this happening quite as much in the corporate sphere overall, or in the tech sphere specifically, at least not yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it happens here, too. The corporate world has embraced the gig economy, and unionization attempts have started to spread. People don’t tend to fight for a union unless conditions are pretty bad.
All that to say that a four-day work week might become a more common perk to help attract and retain good staff (one Waterloo Region tech company, Tulip, has already announced plans to give it a try). Plenty of companies already invest in “wellness,” and helping people actually achieve some work-life balance has to be at least as valuable as shelling out for in-office massages or vegan grain bowls or a fitness equipment stipend.
Who knows, in 10 years we might not even recognize ourselves anymore, with our glowing skin and muscular calves and thriving children and creative yet lucrative project deliverables. Today, the four-day work week. Tomorrow, who knows? Perhaps taking more than a single week of vacation at a time. Doesn’t seem to do Europeans any harm.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.