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Are four-day workweeks, flexible hours the future of work?

If not a shorter workweek, employees want perks that make a job more attractive, like flexible hours or the ability to run errands during the workday

If it’s not a four-day workweek, there are other levers to pull when it comes to workplace flexibility. (iStockphoto)

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A four-day workweek sounds appealing to workers. Possibly alarming to employers. A bill introduced in the California legislature earlier this year proposed a regular pay rate for 32 hours of work per week, with overtime kicking in after that. The measure stalled in committee for a lack of broad support but could resurface in 2023.

Meanwhile, 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit foundation associated with Oxford University, is piloting a six-month trial of a four-day workweek “with no loss of pay for employees.” More than t

hree dozen companies in the U.S. and Canada are participating in the experiment, with a total of 150 organizations and 7,000 employees involved worldwide.

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Of more than 1,000 U.S. adult employees surveyed by research firm Qualtrics in January, 92% said they would support their employer going to a four-day workweek; 79% of them said it would help mental health, and 82% said it would make them more productive .

Will more employers embrace the change? “I’ve always been curious about burnout. It truly affects those that should be thriving,” says Lisa Belanger, CEO of ConsciousWorks in Canmore, Alberta. She consults with businesses on workplace well-being. In her quest to find “how work is meant to be,” she decided to explore a four-day workweek herself.

Results have been mixed, at best, she says. “I think I’ve failed so far in my own personal experiment,” Belanger says. Business travel plans or other work-related responsibilities often interrupted her Day Five off. “One of the reasons it’s so challenging for me, and most people, to do a four-day workweek is other people are working on that fifth day, so you’re getting email and you’re getting pulled in,” Belanger says.

Widespread adoption would have to reach critical mass, where companies believe they have to adopt a shorter workweek to compete in the workforce

“People are realizing that while this might be an intriguing or interesting idea, there’s probably some trade-offs,” says Benjamin Granger, head of employee experience advisory services at Qualtrics. He says the company’s research indicates concerns regarding customer frustration if staffing changes have an impact on response time.

Widespread adoption would have to reach critical mass, where companies believe they have to adopt a shorter workweek to compete in the workforce, he adds. And consumer behavior and customer expectations and services would need to be reshaped. “We’re not even close to that yet,” he says.

If it’s not a four-day workweek, there are other levers to pull when it comes to workplace flexibility, Granger says. Those could include perks that make a job more attractive, like choosing the hours you want to work rather than the usual 9-to-5, or the ability to run errands during the workday.

Less than 4 in 10 (37%) of the employees surveyed by Qualtrics would be willing to take a 5% or more pay cut for a four-day workweek . But nearly three-quarters (72%) of those surveyed said a four-day workweek would mean they would have to work longer days. However, 10-hour days often aren’t child care friendly. And if a company offers to pay for only four days of eight hours each, it could indicate a shorter workweek might be the result of a company trying to reduce expenses. “I think there is a lot of work and research that an organization has to do before it pulls the trigger on this,” Granger says.

A four-day workweek — or other workplace flexibility — might begin with a series of discussions. If there is interest on both sides of the payroll, Granger suggests a trade-off analysis: “Look statistically at the factors that people would be willing to trade off, and would it be worth it to them?” If interest remains strong, the organization could run a pilot program with a small group of employees before a wider rollout.

If a four-day workweek isn’t in your near future, Belanger offers these ideas for employees to possibly seek — and employers to consider: Occasional extended weekends off; a meeting-free Friday or a reduction in the number of meetings overall; and email, instant messaging or texting hiatuses.

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