When Alycia Wettlaufer first heard about the four-day work week, she was thrilled. “My initial thought was ‘How do we make this happen?’”
Not long after, the township of Zorra, Ontario—where Wettlaufer works as a deputy clerk—became only the second government in the country to experiment with the idea.
For the 30 employees of the township who participated in the eight-month trial starting in August 2020, it was a resounding success, she told The Breach over the phone.
“I had more time on the weekends to relax and decompress from my work, and prepare for the upcoming week. I find I’m more focused when I come in. And I think that’s a sentiment shared by most, if not all, of my colleagues.”
In December, the four-day week became a permanent fixture in the township.
Her workplace has joined a growing number of private companies and non-profits in Canada already offering their employees a shortened week—an idea picking up momentum around the world. Its increasing implementation abroad, and in several cases here, has some asking if this might be the future of work.
An idea whose time has come?
The idea of a four-day work week isn’t new, but its growing popularity has been driven by a new pandemic-era appetite for more flexible work. Although it hasn’t been advocated for yet by any political party, a recent poll found that around half of Canadians support it. The Ontario Liberals, ever attuned to political trends, have even pledged to “explore” the idea with a pilot project if elected.
Zorra’s own experiment followed on the heels of the first Canadian experiment in Guysborough, Nova Scotia. There, as in Zorra and in the proposed Liberal pilot, employees worked just as many hours as they did before, but compressed into four days. Other models of the four-day week scenarios have employees working less overall (for example, 32 hours over four days instead of 40 hours over five days).
In Guysborough, morale among employees improved markedly—they had more time with their families, saved money on childcare, and didn’t have to use a day off to run errands—while the municipality was able to extend opening hours, since employees’ days ran longer.
That’s in tune with recent studies and experiments from around the world. In Iceland, where 2500 public-sector workers were involved in a four-day week trial over the last few years, the resulting study declared that they had “maintained or increased productivity and service provision” and “improved workers’ wellbeing and work-life balance.” On the strength of the study’s results, around 86 per cent of the Icelandic workforce has “now either moved to working shorter hours or have gained the right to shorten their working hours.”
Other countries are following Iceland’s lead. In April, Spain announced it would undertake the world’s largest four-day experiment to date. The trial, initiated by the left-wing party Más País, involves an estimated 200 to 400 Spanish companies who will reduce the work week to 32 hours while maintaining the same salaries.
Besides the boost to mental and material well-being, U.K.-based campaigning group Platform argues that a four-day week can improve gender equality by creating a “more equal share of paid and unpaid work” at home.
Increased leisure time can also become an economic boon. With more free time, workers are freer to spend more locally or abroad; the global tourism sector, reeling from the pandemic, would benefit substantially.There are environmental benefits too. A recently published study by Platform found that moving to four days without pay reductions “could shrink the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year,” or the “equivalent to taking 27 million cars off the road—effectively the entire UK private car fleet.”
Sections of the Canadian employer class have tuned in to at least the economic arguments, with Toronto-based companies like Tulip.io Inc, the Leadership Agency, and Coconut Software recently moving to four days. The Leadership Agency’s CEO recently told Narcity it was “hands down the best business decision I’ve ever made.”
These local examples also reflect broader shifts in work worldwide, particularly in the U.S., where the “Great Resignation” is rebalancing the scales in favour of some workers, especially in tech or creative work. The rising battle for talent in particular sectors has pushed companies to offer enticing arrangements like a shortened week or remote work.
But not all workers are enjoying the fruits of these changing dynamics.
With wages stagnating, and unionization levels and worker power at historic lows in Canada, winning a four-day work week for all workers might prove difficult. In Iceland, by contrast, a very high percentage of workers—92 per cent—are unionized. That’s helped to ensure the four-day week has been implemented across various sectors, with unions cementing the shift in contract negotiations.
Without first building broad-based worker power in Canada, suggests union researcher Adam King, it may only be a small, privileged section of largely white-collar workers who end up with a shortened work week.
Can our workforce win a shorter week on a larger scale, or will it further divide an already large gap between low- and high-income workers?
Class struggle vs. white-collar snuggle
Historically, the fight for shortened workweeks in North America came from the labour movement and political left. Unions and activists won eight-hour work days and weekends, for example, in the 19th and 20th centuries.
But the four-day week campaign in Canada and the U.S. often involves—to a surprising extent—corporate consultants, NGOs, and bosses themselves. 4-Day Week (4Dw), a prominent U.S.-based advocacy group made up of entrepreneurs and philanthropists, hosts a petition where employees at a company can signal their interest; once enough employees sign, the group’s team of prestigious consultants contacts the employer to discuss the idea pro-bono.
Organizations like 4DW deploy the language of a “worker-centric” capitalism increasingly popular during the pandemic. In a recent blog post about the “Great Resignation,” a 4DW founder observed that “workers, especially those in lower-paid roles, do not feel they should tolerate the C-suite receiving extortionate compensation– salary, bonuses, stock options, cars, you name it—relative to those beneath them.” As a result, some workplaces are beginning to respond to this discontent with new benefits, like flex-work arrangements.
But is workplace organizing—or the labour movement generally—winning these changes in North America? Not necessarily. While the four-day work week certainly enjoys the interest of workers, the growing implementation might have to do more with efforts to attract and retain white-collar talent amidst a competitive hiring market than workplace activism.
In fact, the conditions of most low-income work contrast starkly with the benefits enjoyed by higher-income, often white-collar work. The pandemic underscored the yawning gap between these two cohorts: high-income earners have generally fared the turbulence quite well, reducing their spending, working remotely, and increasing their savings.
Meanwhile, low-income workers—such as those in manufacturing or service work— either risked getting sick at work or bore the brunt of restrictions, facing job loss or severely reduced hours while income supports like the Canada Emergency Recovery Benefit were cut. This heightened the threat of eviction, an already looming problem due to Canada’s red-hot housing crisis. With wage growth weak—and welfare state protections meagre— making ends meet has long been difficult for the working class, even before the pandemic.
The uneven experience of COVID-19 has often led commenters to describe the coming economic recovery as “K-shaped”: those who were already doing well pre-pandemic will come out of it better off. Meanwhile, those that weren’t will be worse off.
In a recent article, King took a specific look at this disparity and what it tells us about the “flex work” trend. He writes that “without due attention to the often vast disparities of wages and working conditions across the working class,” arrangements like the four-day week “risk being nothing more than the purview of a relatively secure and protected professional strata of salaried employees.”
“Do we really imagine that Kellogg pushes their factory workers to work 60 and 80 hour weeks because they are ignorant of the productivity gains to be had from shorter hours? Of course not,” King told The Breach in an interview. “They are squeezing as much labour as possible out of their workforce, which requires lengthening the workday and workweek.”
While productivity gains in white-collar settings might be realized through a more motivated and rested workforce, employers in service and manufacturing workplaces often prefer to improve productivity through intensification. In fact, burning workers out—which often leads to them quitting—is a key strategy for companies like Amazon. Constant churn makes unionization and worker organizing less likely. In this sense, then, Amazon’s business model is the inverse of companies who connect well-rested and happy employees to higher productivity.
Meanwhile, gig work and temp jobs—which follow a far less predictable schedule— would likely fall outside the purview of a four-day week altogether.
To King, low unionization levels and the ongoing growth of precarious, part-time work since the 1990s—a situation in which workers need multiple jobs to make ends meet— means the majority of the working class typically lack leverage to win big changes.
“To win these working time reductions and paid time off, we need a strong labour movement that prioritizes these issues,” King says, “and that is committed to ensuring that hours reductions are available to all workers, not just a privileged layer of the working class.”
While the four-day movement might speak to all workers, campaigning for demands like higher minimum wages or more generous paid time off, King thinks, may be more winnable for more of the workforce.
The fruits of labour power
Because union density in Iceland is extremely high, workers can secure reforms like the four-day week for most of its workforce. Union density in Canada, meanwhile, hovers around 30 per cent.
The strength of Iceland’s labour movement means that workers don’t often need to wait for benevolent bosses to bestow benefits on workers. They can be fought for and secured in place by collective agreements—and for the vast majority of the workforce.
“Canadian workers work many more hours annually than, say, workers in the Nordic countries,” King says, but “this isn’t because the latter have four day weeks or six hour days. It’s because Nordic workers have access to a lot more paid time off through things like paid family leaves and other policies.”
This includes generous annual vacation time: in Denmark, for example, all full-time workers are legally entitled to a minimum of five paid weeks off. In Canada, workers receive an average of 10 days each year.
“To me, this is the way to ensure, through public policy, that all workers have more time away from work.”
Nonetheless, the growing popularity of the four-day week shows no signs of slowing down, and its popularity could inspire many workers to take action themselves.
Back in Zorra, Wettlaufer is enjoying her improved work-life balance. She’s using the extra day in the week to plan her wedding for later this summer.
“I think it definitely could be applied across different workplaces in the public and private sectors—maybe not in the same format that we have, but adjusted to fit each individual industry and organization.”
“I think if we can make this work for municipal governments,” she says, “it can work elsewhere, too.”