Want to work less? That may be the future of labour for many people

Study finds doing same work in a short week improves employee retention, productivity and happiness, and is good for employees and employers.

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This Labour Day weekend wasn’t about labour for Elliot Chan.

Instead, the Vancouver startup employee focused on completing a triathlon in Stanley Park, after clocking significant hours training for his first race.

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“It would have been much harder to train for it if I didn’t have the work flexibility,” said Chan, the digital marketing manager at Produce8, an online software-solutions company.

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The flexibility that Chan is talking about is part of an emerging trend in some areas of the labour market: working fewer hours in the week, while still doing the same job with the same pay. It’s been spurred on, in part, by the COVID-19 pandemic sparking a global conversation about how and where people can work.

Experts argue productivity, retention and happiness improves when employees have more time off to recharge their batteries. But this movement also requires some ingenuity as it typically means employees doing their usual work in a condensed week of about 32 hours — not just working 40 hours in four days.

The recognized leader of this idea is 4-Day Week Global, a New Zealand non-profit created in 2019 to help companies transition from a traditional five-day week. This year, it made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential companies in the world.

In July, the non-profit released a report that analyzed the outcomes of year-long pilot projects run by 41 companies in the United States and Canada. At the end of the year, 90 per cent of the companies planned to continue the four-day week, with the rest leaning toward continuing.

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“No organization expressed a desire to return to five days,” the report says.

It found employees of these companies worked an average of 40 hours a week before the project began. A year later, they were doing the same job for the same pay in just over 35 hours. More than two-thirds of staff said they had fewer job-related burnouts, and six out of every 10 reported fewer conflicts at work and at home.

Employers rated the impact of the pilot projects an 8.7 out of 10 for attracting new employees and a 7.7 out of 10 for both their workers’ productivity and performance.

Elliot Chan is the digital marketing manager at Vancouver startup Produce8. The company has flexible work hours and encourages employees to work less than 40 hours per week, as long as their work is being completed.
Elliot Chan is the digital marketing manager at Vancouver startup Produce8. The company has flexible work hours and encourages employees to work less than 40 hours per week, as long as their work is being completed. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Two years ago, Victoria lawyer Rajinder Sahota introduced a four-day week for the same pay at his law office, and said the 30 or so employees love the new model.

“I think it actually leads to improved productivity, improved performance, a better work product,” said Sahota, a partner at Acheson Sweeney Foley Sahota.

The experiment has helped keep lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants from moving to other firms, as they feel they have a better work-life balance.

He doesn’t worry about staff not getting their work done.

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“If you hire the right people with the right motivations, you can trust them,” Sahota said.

“The work will never end, so I don’t want people burning out. I don’t want people hating their job. I don’t want people to feel resentment. I want them to be happy and energized. And I think that also makes for good lawyers because they’re motivated to work well for the client.”

Some staff work Monday to Thursday while others work Tuesday to Friday. They work five days a week when they have a trial underway or may put in extra hours when they are on a big case, he added.

Sahota uses his extra day off to be with his children when they are on school breaks — even if it means spending a few hours answering emails after they go to bed.

“It’s invaluable for me,” he said.

Three-quarters of the companies participating in the U.S.-Canada pilot projects had fewer than 25 employees, the 4-Day Week Global report said. They included companies and non-profits in professional services and marketing agencies, IT and construction.

Having a law firm use this model is unique, Sahota said, but he believes that will change.

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“All the data sets that I see seem to point toward this being the way of the future. We gave it a shot and we haven’t looked back.”

interviewed for story
Lawyer Rajinder Sahota says it’s invaluable that he can spend an extra day with his children. Photo by ADRIAN LAM Adrian Lam /TIMES COLONIST

A few months ago, expert Sima Sajjadiani thought the increase in companies embracing this movement would be slow and steady. Now she believes the trend will grow more quickly because the July report showed none of the 41 participating companies were clamouring for their employees to go back to five days.

“Now people have the proof” that a shortened work week is not bad news for employers, said Sajjadiani, an assistant professor in the UBC Sauder School of Business.

“The more organizations start doing that, others will have to follow because they want to compete in the same market for the same employees. And I am hopeful that we’ll see some faster changes in the coming months or years.”

These changes will be more challenging, though, for some companies and industries.

Large corporations with hundreds of employees and hierarchical structures may find it harder to make these types of changes, compared to smaller, newer companies.

It is also important that organizations that pay workers by the hour, such as in many blue-collar industries, don’t dock pay if employees clock fewer hours in the week, she added. Technological advances mean workers accomplish more every hour than they used to, so it’s fair to keep their total pay the same even if their hours go down, Sajjadiani said.

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And, she said, offering a shortened week makes companies more attractive, a significant factor given a recent Statistics Canada report that found a labour shortage for jobs that don’t require a post-secondary education.

There are also suggestions that a shortened work week could help to offset inflation, she said, by helping employees spend less on daycare and commuting expenses.

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UBC Sauder School of Business assistant professor Sima Sajjadiani. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

A four-day week pilot project was run last summer by Chan’s employer, Produce8, a subscription software firm with about 20 employees that helps organizations with remote and digital-first teams understand how to work efficiently together.

The company did a lot of planning around how to eliminate less valuable tasks from employees’ days, so they could still get all their important work done but in fewer hours, said Marcus Stein, manager of customer success.

Produce8 used its own software to collect data on the two-month experiment and conducted surveys, which found employees liked having an extra day off. However, what also became clear is that some staff felt increased stress on Thursdays that they hadn’t got enough done that week to take Friday off.

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Although Produce8’s pilot project was done through collaboration with 4-Day Week Global and a similar Canadian non-profit, the Work Time Reduction Centre of Excellence, the startup ultimately decided a four-day schedule was not the best model for it, Stein said.

Instead, it implemented a flexible work environment that allows employees to take time to pick up children or run errands during the week. And it has made Friday a floating day — it’s not a weekday with scheduled meetings and it’s not part of the weekend — when people can get caught up on work or kick off early.

“Even though we didn’t end up sticking with a strict four-day week, our company culture and our product are really aligned with (that) vision,” Stein said. “It’s really a reduced working hours movement. It’s connected to the idea that it’s not the number of hours we work, but what we get done or achieve that matters.”

In February, Green Leader Sonia Furstenau proposed the province back a four-day, 32-hour week pilot project for three years, as well as provide a tax break to encourage companies to participate, which was modelled after a bill proposed in Maryland.

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Testing a four-day week could help B.C. recruit desperately needed public-sector workers, she said.

“We have a shortage of health-care workers. We have a shortage of teachers. We have a shortage of skilled trades people,” Furstenau said. “Incentivizing a four-day work week really creates those conditions that could make us appealing for people to consider coming here.”

She notes Merritt has adopted a four-day week, with city hall open only Tuesday to Friday, and the high school on Salt Spring Island has operated just four days a week for years to reduce commuting for teens coming from other islands. And Furstenau has put her money where her mouth is: Her party’s caucus and constituency staff work four days each week.

Part of her suggestion to government is that in return for funding the tax credit, they would receive data on how the program is working.

interviewed for story
Ian Hanington is a senior editor at the David Suzuki Foundation, which has had a four-day work week for 30 years. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

But there appears to be little traction at the provincial level.

In response to queries for this story, the Ministry of Labour said in an email that government employees already have flexible work arrangements, and “there are no plans at this time to introduce a pilot project on the four-day work week.”

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The B.C. Public Service Agency, which oversees about 35,000 government workers, said in an email that due to “the size and complexity of our workforce” it was not “considering a four-day work week.”

Governments in countries such as Belgium and Iceland have passed legislation to support a shortened work week. Significant four-day-week trials have been pursued elsewhere, including the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and Portugal.

There are new signs of “momentum” in Canada, said Ian Hanington, senior editor at the non-profit David Suzuki Foundation.

The foundation, with a staff of about 75 people in its three Canadian offices, has been ahead of this curve for decades. It has had a four-day, 34-hour work week for 30 years.

With the extra day a week, some employees pursue hobbies like woodworking. Others teach, volunteer, exercise, and spend time with family. It allows them to recharge before returning to work where dealing with critical environmental issues can be “depressing and draining,” Hanington said.

As a result, it has kept sick days low.

And it can benefit the environment if it leads to people being in their cars less and companies downsizing office space, he added.

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Hanington has received phone calls recently from other non-profits inquiring about how to pursue a four-day model. It’s perhaps easier to contemplate this change now, he added, after the pandemic forced companies to adjust to staff working remotely.

And the change, he argued, is long overdue.

“We’re still working the same hours that we worked before computers took over everything. We’re still working 1950s hours in 2023, which just seems really absurd to me. Especially given how conditions, not just in work, but in production and technologies and in the environmental catastrophe have changed so rapidly,” Hanington said.

“It just seems that we’re using a really outdated, antiquated system for conditions that are no longer the same.”

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