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The Four-day Work Week: An Experiment Worth Trying?

by | Aug 21, 2023 | Community Development

This summer, the community of South Portland, Maine, is embarking on an experiment that rethinks the notion of the work week. For six months, civic employees in the city of 26,000 will work four days a week.

“We’re having a hard time filling certain positions in the city and some employees have mentioned, ‘Gee, it would be great if we had a little bit more flexibility in our schedule,’” the city’s manager Scott Morelli told a local CBS news outlet. “A three-day weekend, right? Everyone has more time to spend with friends and family, get errands done on Friday, make appointments.”

But it’s not just about giving employees a three-day weekend. It’s about improving workplace well-being and efficiency to attract and retain qualified staff while maintaining good public services. Although the new work week will mean some city buildings are closed on Fridays, numerous services will still be handled online including paying taxes and applying for various licences such as registering a car.

And because the normal work week hours will be compressed into four days, in-person services will be available over longer hours Monday to Thursday. South Portland is embarking on what’s called a “compressed work schedule” where the same number of weekly hours are squeezed into fewer days. A 40-hour week, for example, is divided into four days of 10 hours.

But not all four-day weeks are created the same.

There is the “fixed work schedule” that follows what’s called the “100-80-100” formula. Workers receive 100 percent of their pay for 80 percent of the hours worked on the understanding they maintain 100 percent productivity. This will no doubt sound controversial if not downright shocking to those who think an office employee can only be productive if they are behind a desk 9 to 5 Monday to Friday.

However, as the pandemic has demonstrated, many jobs can be done online from pretty much anywhere by workers who are happy to avoid rush hour gridlock to “commute” online. As I have argued before, the pandemic sped up changes that were already happening. One of the most profound realizations is people don’t need to be in an office building from 9 to 5 for 40 hours a week. They can achieve more in half the time working from home. During the pandemic, a new concept that had been brewing on the back burner boiled over into reality: workers were getting paid for performance, not time spent at a desk.

The same metric can be applied to the four-day work week.

Giving workers more flexibility and freedom over their lives delivers benefits to the worker, their organization and their customers, whether that be in the public or private sector.

In recent years, the non-profit group, 4 Day Week Global, has run large experiments involving dozens of companies and thousands of employees across the world trying out a reduced work week under the 100-80-100 formula. The results have been impressive. 

According to a CNN report in November 2022, in one experiment involving companies in the U.S and Ireland, “None of the 27 participating companies who responded to a survey by 4 Day Week Global said they were leaning towards or planning on returning to their former five-day routine. About 9 percent of the 495 employees who responded said they wanted to continue with a four-day week.”

The article went on to say, workers reported “lower levels of stress, fatigue, insomnia and burnout, and improvements in physical and mental health. The trial was also good for company earnings. Average revenue rose 38 percent when compared to the same period last year, according to the survey.”

Realistically, it’s not as if everyone should expect their profits to dramatically rise by almost 40 percent with a reduced work week. An article in the Financial Post in February pointed to a 1.4 percent increase over six months but one employer said the goal of a four-day week wasn’t necessarily profitability but productivity and that had “gone through the roof.”

A separate study in June of 2022, also covered by CNN, quoted a brand manager with an independent brewery in London trying out the reduced work week. “The pandemic [has] made us think a great deal about work and how people organize their lives,” said Sienna O’Rourke. “We’re doing this to improve the lives of our staff and be part of a progressive change in the world.”

At this point if you’re thinking the reduced work week might be better suited to the private sector than the public, let me point you to other experiments similar to the one in South Portland.

The small municipality of French River near Sudbury in Northern Ontario ran a “compressed work schedule” pilot program for its staff in 2022 that proved so successful the community is sticking with the new schedule.

The difference with the South Portland trial is that French River has some workers taking Friday off and others taking Monday off. The result is that the city office is open five days a week. A CBC report last January said the benefits included “improved morale among workers, no decrease in productivity, improved work-life balance and no negative feedback from people who needed to access services at the office.”

And, an unanticipated benefit was a reduction in the community’s carbon footprint because employees were commuting less often.

There were some glitches, though, such as finding people to staff the office when an employee called in sick. The municipality has told its staff they can opt out of the program if they want to work a regular five-day week.

One of the frustrating parts of the trial was that some employees were not able to take part in the pilot program because they had younger children at home and couldn’t find childcare beyond eight hours a day. We at 13 Ways have said many times before, good quality, affordable, accessible childcare is a crucial component for a thriving community. The four-day work week could be another component. It’s exasperating to think the lack of one could trip up the other.

If you’re a town manager or political leader thinking of a four-day week for your staff, you might be worried about pushback from cynics who might see this as a way for government workers to do less work for effectively more pay. The cynics might not be convinced even if the staff were still putting in 40 hours a week or if the town office were still be open five days a week. They just want things to stay the same. But as I have said repeatedly, civic leaders need to embrace change when necessary. If nothing changes, nothing changes. That’s how communities die.

You could, perhaps, remind the cynics that it wasn’t so long ago that the six-day week was the norm. In 1926, Henry Ford was a rebel who instituted a five-day, 40-hour week with no reduction in pay. He was responding to pressure from the labour movement, but he also knew his own workers were more likely to buy a Ford automobile if they had the money to buy a car and a two-day weekend to use it.

But perhaps the best way to convince the doubters is to conduct your own experiment as other communities have done. A February 2023 story by the CBC into the reduced work week in small communities ran the headline, “Rural Ontario municipalities are adopting the 4-day work week. What does it take to get others on board?”

It focused on the small cottage-country municipality of Algonquin Highlands, a four-hour drive west of Ottawa, where the mayor said employees appreciate the compressed work week combined with other flexible arrangements like remote work. “We want to be seen as a dynamic and progressive employer when we are looking for people, and I think this will go a long way to help that,” said Liz Danielsen.

It’s my own experience meeting with civic leaders across North America that workplace flexibility is not just a nice-to-have but a must-have when trying to attract and retain talented young workers.

The CBC article pointed out the four-day week was already taking place in some specific municipal roles even before the pandemic. But according to David Arbuckle – executive director of the Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario – its popularity is spreading to “areas where employee burnout and turnover are big challenges made worse by municipalities and the private sector competing for the same talent pool.”

I have always advocated for municipal leaders taking risks when it is in the best interests of their community rather than taking the unimaginative route that keeps them going in circles that too often leads to a death spiral. 

Let me make it clear I am not saying the four-day work week is for every community and certainly not for every employee. I am saying it is worth exploring if you think it might be right for your community, but you needn’t dive in the deep end right away. Like South Portland and a host of other communities, you could explore the possibility through a trial period without committing yourself, your workers, or your residents.

You just might be embarking on an exciting new chapter for your community.