In 1926, Henry Ford, the man at the helm of the Ford Motor Company, shut down his seven-day automotive factories for two days a week — giving rise to the foundation of the five-day workweek in North America.
Ford touted it as a way to increase productivity, by giving the people on the assembly line one week’s salary while only requiring them to work eight-hour shifts Monday through Friday.
“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 famously mused. He said his strategy was to give workers an extra day of recreation, which would create the need to purchase more goods, including vehicles.
In 1940, the 40-hour workweek was mandated nationally across the United States along with the two-day weekend. Canada and other countries followed suit.
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced offices and all kinds of workplaces across the country to re-examine how and when we work, momentum for the four-day workweek movement is building. Some employers are calling into question whether it still makes sense that the modern-day 9-to-5 grind is modelled on a structure designed for the needs of factory workers from the early 1900s.
“Work is a very different thing than it was in the 20th century, and so I don’t think the five-day workweek serves us very well,” Gideon Forman tells Global News. He’s the climate change and transportation policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, an organization of 90 people who work compressed and staggered workweeks.
The Foundation has implemented four-day workweeks since the 1990s. Staff say it gives them more time to spend with family, as well as pursuing hobbies and civic engagement.
“I work Monday to Thursday, and on Fridays I spend some time volunteering at Canadian Blood Services. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I were working five days a week,” says Gideon.
“We obviously want our employees to be happy and the nice side benefit is that the research shows that when you have a four-day workweek, people tend to be more productive.”
In July, Iceland released its findings of the largest known study of four-day workweeks — a four-year experiment within the ranks of the country’s public service.
Researchers declared the trials an “overwhelming success” in terms of benefits for workers’ mental health and productivity. This has led to unions pushing for this new model and currently, 86 per cent of the Icelandic workforce is either on four-day work schedules or headed down that path.
Spain is currently testing out a four-day workweek for certain companies and the consumer goods multinational firm Unilever is offering staff the option to reduce their working hours by 20 per cent without a decrease in pay. There are several trials in Canada right now, including the township of Zorra, Ont. The municipality of Guysborough, N.S., conducted a trial last year and the compressed workweek was adopted as a policy in April.
In the U.S. on July 29, legislation was introduced in Congress to shorten the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32. Democratic representative Mark Takano of Riverside, in Southern California, put forward the motion.
In a Twitter post, he said, “many countries and businesses that have experimented with a four-day workweek found it to be an overwhelming success as productivity grew and wages increased.”
He added that “the nature of work is rapidly changing, we must keep up.”
Linda Nazareth, an economist and the host of the Work and the Future podcast, says the environmental benefits of a reduced, staggered workweek is a major consideration as it can reduce congestion on the roads and pollution associated with commuting.
“I think the environment and climate change is something that’s going to be factored into work a lot more in the next two to 10 years. And that may mean we go to a four-day workweek,” she tells Global News.
In a tight labour market, Nazareth says the onus will be on employees to push for a shortened week. According to Nazareth, a key hurdle is cultural. The pandemic has only intensified the expectation that workers remain available around the clock.
“We have this mindset that you have to be on all the time, particularly if you’re anything but a very junior worker. And that is going to be a really hard sell, I think, to see this widely adopted,” she says.
Chris Higgins has studied how companies can help employees achieve better work-life balance for more than 30 years. The professor emeritus at Western University’s Ivey School of Business tells Global News that compressed week trials during the 1980s, which were conceived as an antidote to soaring prices at the pumps, were abandoned as gas prices came down. Some roles weren’t a good fit for longer hours over fewer days.
“It was very, very successful with one small caveat: in some types of jobs, the extra hours led to a productivity slump, like a physical labour job. People were good for eight hours but not 10,” says Higgins.
But with an increasing number of jobs in the digital economy, and a workforce spurred by the changes brought on by the pandemic in terms of how, and how often, we work, advocates of the four-day workweek say momentum is building.
Time will tell if the events of the last 17 months will be a catalyst, propelling a shift to a new work structure, or merely a temporary disruption as workplaces revert to the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday grind.