Why the Time Has Come for the Four-Day Work Week

Spooked by the Great Resignation? Here’s why smart organizations are responding with the Great Experimentation
Tina Dacin
Working father lifting his daughter after arriving home during the day.

People are tired. They’re stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. The seemingly endless ebbs and flows of the pandemic have required people to consistently pivot and adapt to different working conditions, homeschooling, social isolation, new technology and more. They’re taking a hard look at their lives – including their jobs – and re-evaluating what’s important to them.

In many cases, what’s not important to people is staying in their jobs. We may think that Canada has averted the Great Resignation, since the country’s employment and unemployment rates are near pre-pandemic levels. But a report from the Conference Board of Canada paints a different picture. The voluntary turnover rate in Canada rose to 9.1 per cent in 2020-2021, higher than any 12-month period since 2014-2015. The job vacancy rate is high as well, up 61 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. These figures foreshadow the talent pressures employers will face in the future.

Now more than ever, an organization’s recruitment, retention and engagement strategies will have outsized influence on future growth and performance. Is the four-day work week, which is being trialed in places such as the U.K., Finland, New Zealand and Japan, the answer to attraction and retention challenges faced by employers here in Canada?

Promising evidence

While it may not be a cure-all, the four-day work week is a model employers should consider experimenting with as they attempt to remain competitive in a job seekers’ market. 

The evidence so far is promising. According to research out of Henley Business School in the U.K., based on a survey of 500 business leaders and 2,000 employees, 63 per cent of businesses already implementing the four-day model found it easier to attract and retain the right talent. Seventy-one per cent also said it helped attract and retain employees with children or family care responsibilities.

The four-day work week has also been shown to improve worker well-being. Research based on trials in Iceland showed improvements across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance. And it didn’t come at the cost of productivity, which remained the same or even increased.

Since March 2020, many businesses have pivoted to remote and hybrid workplaces due to pandemic-related lockdowns and public health restrictions. They’ve embraced new communications tools to maintain and fuel productivity, collaboration and innovation. Projected cost savings of moving to a full-remote or hybrid work environment have also been attractive to employers. For their part, many employees have enjoyed the flexibility of being able to work from home, although these arrangements have further blurred the lines between professional and personal lives and have led to an increase in working hours.

Moving to a four-day work week could offset one of remote work’s most undesirable effects by helping to reduce employee burnout which, according to employers, drives 27 per cent of voluntary turnover. It might also help address recruitment challenges, giving early adopters an edge in the war for talent.

The Great Experimentation

Instead of fearing the Great Resignation, now is the time to experiment. Just as many organizations are experimenting with hybrid-work arrangements, other work models — including the four-day work week— should also be explored.

My advice to organizations is to determine what work model will serve them best post-pandemic. That involves:

  • bringing employees into the process;
  • jumpstarting a dialogue around employer/employee needs and expectations;
  • identifying best practices from similar trials;
  • identifying objectives and metrics for success;
  • developing flexible policies around structure and equitable access; and
  • soliciting feedback throughout the process.

As computer scientist and Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, We’ve always done it this way.” Now is the time to pivot, to experiment and determine what new models of work will be effective moving forward.

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