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Will the Four-day Workweek Feature in a Post-Covid World?

Posted 12 August 2021
by Cat Heffernan

In Australia, we have a proud history of being at the forefront of workplace change, going back to the development (by demand) of the eight-hour workday in 1856, which has subsequently been broadly adopted across the world with an intent of a better work/life balance for workers.

History of the five-day workweek

When the five-day workweek was introduced in the early 20th century by Henry Ford, he touted it to increase productivity. “Just as the eight-hour day opened our way to prosperity, so the five-day week will open our way to a still greater prosperity”, Ford hypothesised. He said his strategy was to give workers an extra day of recreation, which would create the need to purchase more goods, including vehicles. A bit of self-interest, admittedly, but we will give it to Ford that the move genuinely opened up opportunities for workers and businesses.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where technology enables businesses and ways of working that Ford couldn’t have imagined. The current COVID-19 pandemic has forced all kinds of workplaces worldwide to re-examine how and when we work, with levels of flexibility that frankly might not have happened under ‘normal’ circumstances. There is growing momentum around the shift to a four-day workweek as some employers question whether it still makes sense that the modern 9-5 grind is modelled on a structure designed for the needs of factory workers in the early 1900s.

Four-day workweek trials

Many of the experiments involving a four-day workweek worldwide - from Iceland to Spain, Japan, Germany and New Zealand, have slightly different models and mixed results, although overall encouraging. In fact, two of the key executives from New Zealand’s work with Perpetual Guardian have subsequently launched a not-for-profit aimed at promoting the concept - https://www.4dayweek.com/.

It is important to note that there are many different versions of what is meant by a four-day workweek, from condensed hours to reducing hours for the same pay. The potential benefits extend beyond the individual and business to environmental with less commuting and a reduction in traffic (theoretically). Although this week, we have seen Google move to adjust pay based on location, with some nasty surprises for some.

This is complexity at its finest. What are some of the key considerations and lessons from what has already been done?

  • There are different requirements even within the same organisation, so one size likely does not fit all
  • The successful experiments have had high employee involvement in the solutions
  • The solution must meet customer needs

It sounds like a similar list we would have in any large organisational transformation!

We may well be at the precipice of some significant shifts again in how we work, and we have the opportunity to design outcomes that better reflect the nature of work in modern times.

Allegra Consulting acknowledges and pays respect to the past, present and future Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation and the continuation of cultural, spiritual and educational practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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