By Tina Hamilton
The average professional worker in the Lehigh Valley averages about 45-55 hours of work per week. Their days start early to keep up with the demands of life. Between work and home responsibilities, days can be long. Time to manage households and take care of families can often be limited.
Some of the tension was eased when organizations moved to remote or hybrid work environments. Commute time was curtailed or eliminated. They could throw in some laundry and start dinner in between Zoom calls. It’s no surprise that today’s most highly requested benefit from employees looking for a job is remote or hybrid work.
During the pandemic, we learned to prize flexibility, efficiency and accountability over showing your face at an office for a set number of hours.
Building on that revelation is a movement toward an even more progressive model: a four-day work week — remote, hybrid or in-person. Sometimes it involves a reduction in hours as well, going from the traditional 40 hours a week to 32 hours.
It is a concept backed by research. A six-month trial in the U.S. and Ireland in 2022 among 33 volunteer companies showed that a four-day, 32-hour work week had a positive impact on performance, productivity and employee well-being. Employees reported reduced stress and fatigue and improved work-life balance.
A separate 2022 trial of 70 firms in the United Kingdom saw 86% saying that a four-day week was so successful that they planned to keep it in place. They, too, experienced an increase in productivity and a financial benefit to employees on costs related to commuting and child care.
Similar trials in Belgium, Spain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have been equally promising.
As the owner of a company who manages human resources for organizations across the country, my first thought centered on how we respond to client needs when the team members who serve them are not available during normal business hours. Then it struck me: The change is in the idea of “normal business hours.” What is normal?
The idea of a 40-hour work week goes back a century to Henry Ford in the 1920s, and was eventually incorporated into United States labor laws in the 1940s. As an aside, renowned economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology and increased efficiency would give us a 15-hour workweek by 2030.
The pandemic disrupted many things, including how we view work. It upended the traditional 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday schedule in an office. A portion of the entire world became remote workers. No one could have imagined it, yet here we are.
Many organizations that tried the four-day work week staggered their workers’ days off to assure clients’ calls were still responded to and production lines kept running.
It’s the combination of employee satisfaction and the potential for more responsive customer service that has Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk looking at a four-day, 40-hour week for employees in City Hall.
“Coming out of the pandemic, flexibility was the name of the game. We want to offer an environment that is respectful, caring and inclusive,” Tuerk said. “People might have home situations where four 10-hour days are better than five eight-hour days. It broadens the pool of potential employees.
“As we institutionalize the concept, we may be able to offer expanded hours with some people starting early or staying longer during their 10-hour days. It could improve the way we serve residents of Allentown.”
Despite the national news of layoffs, the job market is still competitive in many regions and categories. Companies continue to seek unique perks and benefits to attract top talent without raising pay too much. The shorter work week is an attractive selling point, especially if productivity is not hurt. Workers who adapt to a 32-hour work week will find it hard to go back.
The migration to a four-day work week would likely impact organizations significantly, even if they did not adopt it fully. Imagine how streamlined processes would become. Think about how organizations would be forced to collaborate more effectively to compensate for fewer hours.
In that spirit, companies are now adopting ways to improve efficiency and offer flexibility, such as meeting-free days, Friday half-days and other time-saving or time-shifting strategies.
There are many considerations based on how each business operates. Workers who get paid hourly could see their compensation drop if their hours fell. Four 10-hour days or flexible scheduling could be an option. In addition, a business with both salaried and non-salaried workers might need to address dissent and allegations of favoritism if one segment of the workplace began working fewer hours for the same pay.
In addition, many jobs — manufacturing, logistics and service industries for example — already are highly efficient or staffed according to work volume, meaning a reduction in hours isn’t as feasible.
For those companies looking to evaluate if it’s a fit, I encourage them to check out the 4 Day Week pilot program at 4dayweek.com. The website dives deeper into the research and offers options for examining the possibility at your workplace.
This article was originally published in the Allentown Morning Call on March 18, 2023.