Can a four-day-a-week workweek really work?

It's been talked about for ages. And now, with the biggest pilot ever starting in the U.K., we're going to find out whether a four-day workweek actually, uh, works!

I am not the person for a four-day workweek. My typical week involves about 50 hours over six days a week. But then I'm a workaholic, and that's not really a good thing.

Most people in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), worked for an average of  34.7 hours in 2021. So, in a way, you could argue we're already heading to a four-day-a-week workweek.

Of course, it's not really that simple. The BLS numbers also include part-time workers. And these days, by career analysis company Zippia's count, roughly 36% of the U.S. workforce worked some in the gig economy in 2020.

Work is complicated.

Still, the idea of working a four-day-a-week workweek is an attractive one.

Now, in a U.K. pilot project, thousands of employees are working a four-day week with no reduction in pay. This is the most significant labor experiment of its kind. It involves 3,300 workers at 70 companies, ranging from a car parts retailer to an animation studio, marketing agency, and fish-and-chip shop.

It tests whether the "100-80-100" principle can work in the real world. This cryptic term means workers get 100% pay 80% of the time while working with an expectation of 100% productivity.

The British aren't the only ones tinkering with this idea.

A California bill would have required businesses with more than 500 workers to pay employees the same amount for 32 hours as they would for 40. The bill didn't advance, but it appears it's not dead yet — and it may still make another appearance in the legislature.

Why are businesses and governments working on this idea? Well, in case you haven't noticed, burnout has become a real problem for businesses. In recent years, the problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic worries, political troubles, and world tensions. The last few years haven't been easy on anyone.

Some businesses have dealt with more burnout than others.

Anyone in the health field knows burnout has risen to epidemic proportions. One major reason front-line workers keep quitting their jobs is burnout from too many rude customers.

It all adds up: always being on call, unfair treatment,  heavy workload, low autonomy, poor pay, and lack of social support. This is not a recipe for success.

The wonder is why more people don't join The Great Resignation. And, adding insult to injury, the more people quit, the heavier the burden falls on the shoulders of those left on the job.

So, maybe, just maybe, if we give people more time away from work, they'll end up being more productive.

It can work. I've seen businesses that give people "break" days — say, one Friday a month off — succeed. Their people are happier and — this is a big one these days — more likely to stay on the job.

They may be more productive, too. A Stanford University study found that overworked employees — not uncommon in Silicon Valley — are actually less productive than employees working a normal working week.

More hours do not mean more productivity. It has never been true. And never will

I also believe that one reason working from home is so successful is because workers no longer waste time on long commutes.

They can make room in their day to take care of the kids and take the dog to the vet — what have you. They are not, however, wasting time. Besides being more productive, they also simply work more hours.

It's weird, but there it is; when you get right down to it, people like being productive.

Can people do their jobs in 32 hours a week instead of 40? For some jobs, I'm sure they can.

We have all these new productive programs, so isn't it time they've proven their worth?

For example, many of us now meet by Zoom, and we no longer waste time gathering in rooms, getting a cup of coffee, or twiddling with our notebooks. Instead — bang! There we are. And, when the meeting's done, we're still at our desks.

Of course, this won't work for all jobs.

For example, that fish-and-chip shop will still need front-line staffers, chefs, and other back-of-house workers. Even so, that can be solved by simply hiring a few more workers and adjusting job shifts.

Even production-line jobs, like manufacturing, may do better by hiring more assembly-line workers than working the ones they have until they're tired.

I've also seen that while, in theory, people are "working" on Friday, often they're not.

They've left early; they've checked out mentally, whatever. I've given up trying to get things done on Fridays. But, if we have people working four-day shifts, I think we could see productivity jump throughout the entire week.

Will this work? Stay tuned. We're going to know soon. And, if it does, it may get adopted quicker than you might think. Ford and G.M., for example, are both watching the U.K. study closely.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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