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A four-day work week might be exactly what the U.S. — and its economy — needs right now

“The pandemic has created a moment for businesses to take stock and consider more radical reconstructions of the workplace," experts say.

Surveys indicate that people who work four days instead of five are less susceptible to stress and burnout — which is on the rise more broadly due to the coronavirus.Demetrius Freeman / Bloomberg via Getty Images

By Martha C. WhiteWorkers who clock in just four days a week report being happier and more productive, and small businesses say it gives them an edge in attracting and motivating workers. Now, the prospect of having long weekends every week is gaining traction across corporate America.

The four-day workweek got a boost when former Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang touted the concept on his social media channels recently, in response to a proposal from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that post-coronavirus economic recovery would benefit from three-day weekends. The widespread COVID-19 lockdowns upended regular schedules, with many Americans finding themselves clocking in from home or working different hours as they juggled childcare or home-schooling with their professional obligations — which led employees and bosses alike to rethink the traditional Monday-to-Friday workweek.

Companies including travel website TripAdvisor and publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt switched temporarily to four-day workweeks — coupled with pay cuts — in response to the pandemic’s economic fallout. Advocates say that while it might be a useful tool to cut costs without resorting to layoffs, keeping workers at full pay with an extra day off each week yields other types of dividends.

“The pandemic has created a moment for businesses to take stock and consider more radical reconstructions of the workplace. It is a time for experimentation and a reevaluation of what it means to be productive,” said Andrew Barnes, author of "The 4 Day Week" and co-founder of the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global. Barnes has emerged as a global ambassador of sorts for a four-day workweek, since switching his own New Zealand-based firm onto that schedule back in 2018 and finding it improved productivity and morale. “By focusing on productivity and output rather than time spent in a workplace, the four-day week allows for better work-life balance, improved employee satisfaction, retention and mental health,” he said. This was what Gary Gibson discovered. The 39-year-old, a property manager at a senior living community near Allentown, Penn., said working from home during the COVID-19 lockdown and having greater autonomy with his time management gave him new insight into his productivity.

“What this has really helped me with is realizing that time shouldn't be so rigid in terms of how many hours you’re putting in during the day, as long as you’re getting your work done,” he said.

Gibson said he plans to ask if his employer would accommodate a more flexible schedule. “The four-day workweek would be able to free me up to do more things for my health. I’d be able to work out more, relax more,” he said.

A trial undertaken by Microsoft’s Japanese subsidiary last summer found that a four-day week improved worker productivity, and four-day workweeks seem to have gotten the most traction so far in the tech sector, where corporate culture is more open to unorthodox ideas.

“I think this model can be transferred to other industries outside of tech,” said Robert Yuen, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco software firm Monograph, who transitioned his company to a four-day workweek back in 2016. “Generally speaking, if you're in a white-collar profession, there’s a lot of opportunity to rethink what that workweek looks like.”

Giving people an extra day off can help companies accommodate new social-distancing guidelines in workplaces, along with childcare schedules that are likely to be chaotic for months to come.

About one-third of employers already offer “compressed workweeks,” according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey. Liz Supinski, the organization’s director of data science and research, predicted this number will grow.

“I think it was already out there in the zeitgeist, and I just think now more businesses are trying to be creative. The dislocation of COVID-19 has made a lot of organizations maybe more open to things they'd dismissed out of hand earlier,” she said. “We’re better positioned to return to a workplace where not everybody is in the office every day.” Giving people an extra day off also can help companies accommodate new social-distancing guidelines in workplaces along with childcare schedules that are likely to be chaotic for months to come.

Surveys indicate that people who work four days instead of five are less susceptible to stress and burnout — which is on the rise more broadly as COVID-19 continues to be a public health and economic threat in parts of the U.S.

“It became very clear that with this added layer of anxiety and stress, it’s just harder to go about normal life at this time,” said Joel Gascoigne, co-founder and CEO of software firm Buffer.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Buffer was on the leading edge of the COVID-19 lockdowns. “I started to realize there was a real risk we would accelerate a large level of burnout,” he said, so he implemented a four-day workweek on a trial basis, with individual teams coordinating days off to cover customer service operations on all weekdays. “We’ve seen higher workplace happiness through the surveys we’ve done, and we’ve seen lower stress levels and a higher sense of autonomy as well,” he said.

And as the labor market rebounds, companies could gain a competitive edge offering compressed schedules to workers like Allison Todd, who worked four days a week as a trucking company billings and logistics coordinator until she lost that job due to the pandemic in April.

Todd said finding another employer willing to offer that flexibility has been a priority in her job search. “That would be my main goal — another job where I’m only working four days a week,” she said. “I think I’ll always continue to look for it. I feel like once people work that, then they’ll understand how great it is.”

Shawn Anderson, co-founder of software company PDQ, said his company’s four-day week has been a boon for recruitment and retention. Small companies like his — based in Salt Lake City — might not be able to offer lavish Silicon Valley-style perks, but they can give stressed out workers the one thing they can’t buy: More of their time back.

“People say, ‘I don't think I can ever go back.’ That’s probably the thing we hear the most,” Anderson said. “Right now, we see this as one of the biggest perks, one of the biggest benefits we offer.”

Experts caution, though, that shortening the workweek is not a panacea. Businesses might anger

customers who can’t reach a representative on a weekday, and scheduling around that can be complicated, especially in larger organizations. “Organizations are scrambling to figure out how to organize workers into cohorts and when they can come in,” said Joyce Maroney, executive director of The Workforce Institute at Kronos.

Supinski said some employers are hostile to the idea. “There's this traditional American idea to look at work as an industrial process, even if it’s knowledge work,” she said.

And even proponents acknowledge that there is a class divide. Front-line and blue-collar workers don’t have the same kind of flexibility as those who work in offices. Some may have the option of working fewer, longer shifts, but industries that rely on hourly workers might not be willing to let employees tack on a few extra hours if that means incurring overtime wage costs.

“I think that's the challenge when organizations implement something like this organization-wide,” Supinksi said. “Like many things of this issue, it’s an issue of privilege.”




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