For millions of Americans, the last couple of years have represented an opportunity to live out a long-held dream: remote work. The COVID-19 pandemic forced skeptical businesses to shift to widespread work-from-home arrangements in a push to stem the spread of the disease among coworkers clustered together for 8 or more hours per day.
While some companies are anxious to bring staff back to the office, others have announced permanent or at least indefinite remote, hybrid, and flexible working arrangements.
Remote work is a great option for some, but not necessarily all, employees or organizations. There are still plenty of workers who prefer going into the office, and full-time employees still have to work 5 days per week, even if it is from the comfort of their home office, couch, or even bed.
Movement Toward a 4-Day Workweek?
But work life has the potential to get even more idyllic for employees in America’s largest state economy. As Katherine Bindley writes for The Wall Street Journal, California is considering shortening the length of the workweek for large employers. “A proposal in the California State Legislature would define the workweek in the state as 32 hours, not 40, for larger companies,” she writes. According to JD Supra, the applicable legislation, Assembly Bill 2932, has stalled in the California State Legislature, apparently due to lawmakers’ desire to spend more time studying the impacts of the proposal, which could affect over 2,000 businesses.
The mere fact that California is seriously considering such a significant piece of legislation has surely caught the attention of business leaders and observers. We reached out to industry experts to gauge their opinions on the potential impact of a 4-day workweek on employees, employers, and the broader economy.
One of the key arguments in favor of a 4-day workweek is that such a shift will lead to more relaxed, happy, and well-rested employees. Well-rested employees are happy employees, the argument goes. And happy employees work harder, show more initiative, and are less likely to leave than unhappy employees.
“Happy employees will work harder, but not in the way that means physically demanding,” says Andrei Vasilescu, cofounder and CEO at DontPayFull. “They will more likely be more creative and resourceful because they go to work happy. Unhappy employees work hard to stay under the radar. They work as little as possible, but just enough to meet their expectations. This is not the team an employer wants to have in their business. An extra day off will lead to more rested, recharged, and happy staff.”
The first thing many employers think when they hear proposals for a 4-day workweek is likely an expectation that productivity will drop by 20%. After all, employees working 32 hours per week instead of 40 hours per week are working 20% less.
Is the boost in morale and initiative Vasilescu predicts likely to materialize, and, if so, will it translate to a productivity boost that can make up for the drop in hours worked?
It’s really impossible to give a definitive answer to that question that will hold true for all companies. Some organizations may find that the productivity increase of employees thrilled with the shorter workweek more than makes up for the drop in hours worked, some may find productivity has stayed essentially the same and fewer hours means less work, and others may even find that their workers slack off more in a shorter week and are actually less productive on an hourly basis than when they were working more hours.
“As no two companies are alike, there is no one right answer for determining if a four-day workweek is a right choice for your company,” says AJ Silberman Moffitt, senior editor for Tandem Buzz. “Think about your employees, your customers, and your product or service. Do you need to have people available five days a week? Do you have enough staff to ensure that there is always at least one person in the office during the workweek? Do your teams need to work together on the same days, or can they work independently of each other, where it wouldn’t matter if one person was in the office and another was out? You need to think of all the scenarios and situations to determine if this type of work schedule could work for your company.”
Each business will need to determine for itself how feasible such an arrangement is for its own business. The uncertainty around these impacts is a major reason California’s legislative proposal has stalled so far.
Aside from concerns over total productivity, perhaps the biggest drawback of moving to a 4-day workweek is logistical. “One con of a four-day workweek is that it could take a lot of operational restructuring to ensure that all weekly projects and tasks are completed in four days rather than five,” says Ray Blakney, CEO and cofounder of Live Lingua. “Another con is that one of your clients may need help with something on a day your enterprise is no longer open for business, which can cause them frustration.”
Companies have internally developed complex schedules based on a 5-day workweek. Some teams have meetings every Monday, while others may have cross-functional meetings every other Wednesday. Companies may have recurring meetings with external stakeholders, as well, such as partners, vendors, and customers. Even agreeing on which 32 hours or which 4 days staff work can be tricky if there’s a need for them to be present at the same time but they have different preferences for when that is.
Despite the existence of this potential logistical challenge, it’s unlikely to be an insurmountable roadblock. Companies update schedules all the time in response to scheduling conflicts for key staff, employee vacations, and company holidays. To the extent logistics would be an issue at all in a 4-day workweek, they would likely be temporary as organizations adjust to the new reality.
All About the Labor Market
Less than 15 years ago, it would have been laughable to suggest a mandatory 4-day workweek. Back then, in the midst of the Great Recession, employers had their pick of plenty of desperate jobseekers. But, the tables have turned completely within the last year, and now employees have the leverage.
Whether or not California or any other state, local, or federal government mandates a shorter workweek, many companies are experimenting with 4-day workweeks already. It’s just one of the many ways companies are trying to be creative in attracting top talent without a salary bidding war.
Even in the cutting-edge labor law state of California, skepticism and hesitation remain over the impact of shifting to a 4-day workweek. It seems unlikely other states will take the plunge before the Golden State. However, the current bargaining power of employees relative to employers could force the hands of some companies with or without government mandates.
Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.