Future of Work

This is what the 4-day workweek means for equal rights, productivity and climate change

A four day workweek could be the future of working life

A four-day workweek could be the future of working life. Image: Unsplash @headwayio

Bincheng Mao
Global Shaper, New York Hub, New York Hub
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Future of Work

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  • Flexible and hybrid working styles are the new normal following the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Working four days a week boosts productivity and is beneficial to individuals, the environment, and the economy.
  • A four-day workweek is a potential solution for new working models and could improve equality issues in the workplace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new normal for millions of working people worldwide, characterized by a sense of previously unmatched flexibility. When this public health emergency comes to an end, and hopefully it will soon, working people are looking to apply the lessons learned during the pandemic to create better and more productive ways of work such as hybrid models and flexibility. A four day, 32-hour workweek appears to be the best way to live up to this historic task, for it enhances the wellbeing of working people while also preserving economic growth.

Are four day workweeks effective?

Last year, I was elected president of a US-registered public charity, and when the Omicron wave struck in December, I instituted a four-day workweek for all our project teams at the East Coast Coalition for Tolerance and Non-Discrimination (ECC). In our surveys-based analysis at the end of the first month, our team noted both a substantial decrease in stress levels and a visible increase in overall productivity.

It is not just individual organizations like ours that are adopting a four-day workweek; countries such as Japan, Ireland, and Iceland have also implemented the four-day workweek on a significant scale. In addition, the world’s largest economy, the US, has also seen its momentum growing, with nearly a hundred members of the US Congress recently endorsing the creation of a 32-hour workweek. Moreover, the data available from large-scale experiments have provided evidence suggesting that a four-day workweek is the future.

Specifically, there are three primary reasons that make a four-day workweek an excellent policy for economies.

1. A four-day workweek does not reduce productivity, and it may even increase productivity.

Productivity is undoubtedly crucial to a prosperous economy, and opponents of a four-day workweek often argue that, intuitively, one less day of work would result in decreased output. Nevertheless, an in-depth analysis conducted at Stanford has debunked this belief.

More specifically, Microsoft Japan tested this shortened work schedule for its 2,300-person workforce for five consecutive weeks in 2019 and saw its productivity increase by a staggering 40%. Similarly, more recent trials in Iceland have shown that “productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces.” And researchers from the UK think tank Autonomy concluded that the Icelandic experiment is an “overwhelming success.”

Why is this the case? In addition to disruptive new technologies being applied to the workplace, a four-day workweek significantly increases worker contentment and teamwork and decreases stress levels. In the case of Microsoft Japan, the shorter workweek led to more efficient meetings and happier workers.

For example, the length of a meeting was cut from 60 minutes to 30 minutes, combined with the adoption of a five-person maximum attendance policy for each meeting. Employees also take fewer sick days as a result of decreased work-related stress, while the shortened workweek allows companies to save on electricity, office supplies, and cafeteria costs.

2. A four-day workweek promotes equal rights for women and therefore creates a more equal workplace.

A four-day, 32-hour workweek would enable working people, regardless of gender, to have more time to fulfil childcare and other family and personal responsibilities, without leaving the workforce. This would promote equality in the workplace as women are presently much more likely to leave employment as a result of childcare responsibilities.

A 2021 study published by the Center for Global Development revealed women, globally, are about three times more likely than men to take up childcare responsibilities. In the same year, the US Census Bureau reported that approximately 10 million American women are not in the workforce and staying with their young children; the number was 1.4 million before the pandemic.

Given the circumstances, it can be deeply meaningful for societies to provide working people with a better chance at balancing caring and working responsibilities, and a four-day workweek would go a long way. Every member of a family would have eight more hours on a weekly basis to spend on their personal or family responsibilities, while the employers would see their employees remain in the workforce with higher degrees of happiness.

Have you read?

At the same time, Stanford Business School has found that workplace equality has dramatically benefited the economy by contributing to growth over the past half a century. In 2016, McKinsey Global Institute also released reports on the power of gender parity, indicating progress on gender equality could add 12 trillion dollars of global economic growth by 2025. Therefore, a more equal workplace is not only a critical social justice issue but also a consequential component of economic development.

3. A four-day workweek significantly reduces carbon emissions

A 2019 study conducted by UK-based researchers found that, by adopting a four-day workweek, British carbon emissions will reduce by nearly 20%—127 million metric tons—by the year 2025. For reference, such a reduction in emissions is similar to eliminating all private cars from the roads in the UK. Across the ocean in the US, the state of Utah experimented with a four-day workweek and projected a decrease of nearly 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

A smaller carbon footprint resulting from a four-day workweek is crucial to both economic prosperity and humanity’s collective fight against climate change. Moreover, the European Commission has explicitly listed “economic growth” as a primary benefit of building a low-carbon society. Thus, implementing a four-day workweek would be a significant step in the right direction.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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