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Could a 4-day workweek be a part of the new normal?

Posted by Tasnim Ahmed

August 10, 2021    |     2-minute read (619 words)

The eight-hour work days taken as a matter of fact today had their genesis in the Industrial Revolution. At that time, workers were expected to perform backbreaking labor for up to 14 to 16 hours a day. People worked these long hours, even seven days a week, because hourly pay was so low.

This cycle began to change in around 1908, when workers in some parts of the U.S. were allowed a day off every week to do chores and for religious purposes. But the main disruption came by way of Henry Ford, who in 1926 introduced a five-day workweek for his company’s labor force. 

Ford’s trailblazing move impacted the entire landscape of American industry. It proved so influential that the concept was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, legislatively making eight-hour days and five days a week the “new normal.”

Some say Ford had the welfare of the workers in his heart. His son, Edsel Ford, told The New York Times the company’s philosophy was employees needed more than one day a week to rest and spend time with family. But in a 1926 interview with The World’s Work magazine, Henry Ford said working people needed free time to spend on consumer products, which included automobiles. 

In part, Henry Ford clearly wanted to increase consumption with the five-day workweek. Regardless of his intentions, the move to a shorter week undeniably spurred the government and industry to act, and the concept of the five-day workweek has stood the test of time until now, nearly a century later.

The rise of the four-day week 

Everything is prone to change, including our notion of a “normal” workweek. An array of disparate experiments with a four-day workweek in recent years have produced intriguing results. 

In March, Spain’s government announced it would pay some companies to test out a four-day week. In Iceland, among the first countries to trial the concept, the shorter workweek is now followed or will soon be followed by an estimated 85% of the population.

Iceland ran its four-day workweek experiment from 2014 to 2019. The concept, which decreased weekly hours to 36 or 35 hours instead of 40 hours yet preserved the same level of pay, was tested on 2,500 people. Employees even had the option to allocate their work days based on personal convenience.  

The country simultaneously ran a shortened workweek trial from 2017 to 2021 at government offices. Iceland’s two studies presented virtually identical results: No change in productivity was observed, rather it even increased in some places; and workers reported an improved balance between work and life. 

Microsoft Japan also recently experimented with a four-day workweek, which the company said resulted in higher sales figures, a 40% boost in productivity and lower overhead costs. Some New Zealand companies also reported significant gains in productivity when trialing a four-day workweek, with financial services company Perpetual Guardian opting to make the shift permanent. 

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Shake Shack has begun allowing managers at some locations to work four, 10-hour days rather than the traditional five-day week. Kickstarter will begin trialing a four-day workweek at the same pay next year, and San Francisco-based Monograph has used the shortened workweek since its 2016 founding. 

In a nod to the popularity of the concept, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., recently proposed legislation that would trim the nation’s standard 40-hour workweek to 32 hours. Of course, there are numerous potential pitfalls to watch for when contemplating a four-day workweek. However, in our “new normal,” don’t be surprised if Iceland’s example continues to be emulated and workers aim to be more in control of their environs.

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