Should we make every week a four day workweek?

Should we make every week a four day workweek?

In 1999, Bill Lumbergh granted his office filled with indifferent employees the perk of a lifetime. He announced Friday is Hawaiian shirt day. That means that on Friday, you can feel free to come into work in a Hawaiian shirt, and Jeans.

The classic movie, Office Space pokes fun at many of the common standards of workplace culture, and dress code was an easy target. During the year the movie was released, I worked in a traditional office setting myself. It was a professional environment, which was demonstrated by the staff arriving at 8:00, staying until 5:00 or a little later, and composing emails and fax cover sheets with phrases like "Per your request" and ending with "regards". The staff clocked in and out on time, without fail, even if they had to stall to make it to five o'clock.

A key standard we held to is our dress code. From Monday through Thursday men wore ties. Standard attire included khakis or some form of medium weight cotton twill slacks with oxford shoes and a button down shirt. It was the strip of fabric tied around your neck that best communicated that you were a professional, and you took your job seriously.

Women's attire was a little harder to define. Shorts were not allowed, but you could wear a skirt of the same length, or full length slacks. Tops that were permitted were defined by their fabric. A sleeveless blouse made of satin was acceptable, but a tank top made of cotton was not.

The rules were extremely important. It said that we were a real company that took work seriously. It portrayed a professional image to our customers. It demonstrated that we were team players. It mattered.

Until Friday.

On Friday, we enjoyed the ritual known as Casual Friday. Jeans day, some called it. On Friday, no tie was required. Tennis shoes sometimes replaced the oxfords. The top button on the collared shirt was undone.

On Friday, the very important rules were no longer important.

We still met with vendors and customers just as much as ever. Really, everything was the same, except people were more comfortable. It seems to me that if the rules didn’t matter on Friday, they probably didn’t matter any other time either.

This calls into question all the other rules. Personally, I wondered about job descriptions, titles, long reports and work hours.

In 2020, because of concerns related to COVID 19, many businesses began requiring their employees to work from home. Some companies needed to upgrade technology, or make other adjustments to accommodate changes in workflow. Some feared productivity would go down, or that people would feel isolated.

Bosses were concerned about the ability to collaborate with their teams. But most of all, how will executives manage their employees?

How we manage productivity

Should we judge people by the work they deliver or the temperature of their Herman Miller chair?

Just a couple weeks ago, Scotland announced that they would trial a four day workweek, without a pay decrease for workers. The timing coincides with worker hesitancy to return to an office where they would be forced to spend all day in enclosed spaces.

Iceland preceded Scotland in reducing the workweek. Between 2015 and 2019, the National Government led trials where hours were reduced without reducing worker pay. The trials resulted in a 20% increase in performance productivity per hour and workers feeling less stressed, or at risk of burnout. Some of the benefits employees were able to report included better work-life-balance, more time with family, and the ability to tend to chores.

Four day workweek in the US

In July California Congressman Mark Takano Introduced legislation to formally change the US standard to a four-day workweek, or 32 hours. In addition to the benefits reported in Iceland, Takano says “Shorter workweeks have also been shown to further reduce healthcare premiums for employers, lower operational costs…” and more. A coalition of business leaders, thought leaders and advocacy groups have launched a campaign to move to a four day standard. This proposed legislation has been presented this year, but the four day week is not a new idea.

The notion of a four day workweek is something that has been under consideration by thought leaders for a long time. As Vice President of the United States, Richard Nixon cast this vision of a four day workweek as early as September of 1956, in a campaign speech to reelect President Eisenhower. He envisioned a fuller family life for every American as a part of the economic policies he expected the administration to carry out. He later walked his proposal back when asked about it in 1960, still as Vice President. He said that “we can’t have it now”  because such a change would require more automation, ensuring our economic production is not reduced.

Nixon later became President and resigned amid the Watergate scandal. As a result, NIxon’s ideas are Nixon Ideas, which means they are likely going to be tossed in the burn pile as the junk ideas from a corrupt President.

Of course automation has indeed advanced. Communication is faster, being at an office in person is no longer essential, and manufacturing has more automation. At least compared to 1956 anyway.

Currently, in America, our way of life is selling our time for money. The fast paced tech companies and “startup culture” glorify hustle and not surprisingly, are plagued with stress and burnout. In most families, both parents work full time, while they pay for daycare so other people can care for their children.

We work hard, sacrificing life for money and consumerism so that we can retire one day and finally start living. That is, if we still have the physical ability to do so. The true price of anything is the amount of life you sold to get it.

Job burnout causes depression and anxiety

According to a meta-analysis published in the National Institute of Health, there is a significant association between burnout and depression or anxiety. The research shows that “burnout is related to reduced performance in the workplace often leading to several forms of withdrawal, such as absenteeism and intention to leave the job.”

Ironically, in our culture, healthcare is one of our most expensive necessities if you include insurance coverage, often costing more than a mortgage. We go to work, depend on our companies to provide access to healthcare and sometimes even choose jobs based on gaining that plan. Yet, work burnout can be the cause or contributing factor to many of our health issues.

Burnout is costing employers in more ways than is obvious. First workplace productivity, employee turnover, and eventually a contributor to the cost of healthcare.

A pandemic has changed the way many companies look at office time. Many are adopting hybrid schedules where people work remotely more often, or permanently, reducing overhead invested in real estate. This has employees commuting less and potentially sleeping more, and surveys show that workers prefer the experience of working remotely when it’s an option.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of the book “Shorter”, describes the issues faced by countries like Japan and Korea who after years of grueling schedules have moved to shorter workweeks nationally, including four day weeks or six hour days. Their workforce health (including increased death by suicide or other causes) have demonstrated that they need to “change or die”.

While the four day workweek is gaining increasing interest in the US, it is still a fringe idea that most people see as a fantasy, or not practical. But how often do we just accept something because it has long been the prevailing opinion?

The answer is Everyday.