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‘Beginning of a trend’: More Ontario municipalities show interest in 4-day work week

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A growing number of rural municipalities in Ontario are expressing interest in implementing a four-day work week, a group that supports local governments says, as another community in the province begins offering the model to staff.

The executive director of the Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association said there are at least seven municipalities now offering staff the flexibility to work a four-day week, with Algonquin Highlands becoming the latest to implement it.

“Maybe it’s the beginning of a trend,” Scott Vokey said in a phone interview. “There seems to be more people kicking the tires, considering it now.”

Interest in the model has grown to the point where the association has decided to organize a workshop in May for chief municipal administrative officers to learn more about the four-day work week, he said.

Rural governments, like businesses, began exploring the idea after the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes to the way municipal services were carried out, Vokey said.

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Zorra Township, a rural municipality at the northwest corner of Oxford County in southwestern Ontario, began scheduling staff to work four days a week more than a year ago. Several other rural municipalities in southern Ontario have since followed suit.

Vokey said he knows of municipalities in Nova Scotia and Alberta that have also made similar changes.

The Ontario Municipal Administrators’ Association said workers in rural municipalities are more likely to adapt to the four-day work week compared to larger cities, like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, for various reasons including the number of employees they have.

“One is just the logistics of a smaller workforce being more nimble and being like a laboratory where you can test things,” Vokey said.

“Another factor is it is challenging for small, rural places to attract good talent and they’re always looking for new and innovative ways to win that battle.”

The mayor of Algonquin Highlands — which permanently established a four-day work week this week — said the pandemic transformed the way people work and that gave her government the idea to explore new schedules for staff in the cottage-country community, which is surrounded by lakes and forests.

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“When people were working from home, we found that allowing people some flexibility in their shifts during that time worked rather well,” said Liz Danielsen.

“As the pandemic started to wind down a little bit, we thought to give the compressed work week a trial period.”

The municipality conducted a trial of the four-day work week for the last six months, having two teams working different schedules. One group clocked in Monday to Thursday while the others worked Tuesday to Friday. Everyone worked an hour extra every day and breaks were reduced to 30 minutes.

“In other words, the office was open for five more hours a week and it worked really, really well,” Danielsen said.

She added the schedule is optional and if workers choose to work Monday to Friday during regular hours, the municipality can accommodate that as well.

“The whole atmosphere in the office is absolutely better,” she said. “There’s nothing better than having happy staff.”

John Trougakos, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, said the shift in work schedules is part of a global trend that gained traction during the pandemic.

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“We’ve seen it in Iceland, we’ve seen it in some places in the U.K., we’ve seen it in some places in the United States,” he said.

Studies have indicated the four-day week allows employees to have better work-life balance, such as having more time for hobbies and their families, which leads to reduced stress and burnout.

“From an organizational perspective, it leads to higher employee satisfaction, retention and it’s a recruiting advantage for a number of organizations that implement this,” Trougakos said.

“We also see from an organizational perspective that there is increased productivity and that makes sense if employees are more engaged, more satisfied and less stressed.”

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The professor added there are minor differences between a business and a municipality or a government making the change.

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“The level of scrutiny or the level of external criticism may be different for a government,” he said.

“Governments obviously always have to be mindful of how they come across to the taxpayers … that whatever model they choose to set up, it does meet the needs of the community and the people they’re intended to be serving.”

But if government workers are more productive, as studies suggest, then Trougakos said it shouldn’t affect services.

Danielsen said that’s exactly what has happened in her municipality. There’s been “absolutely no impact on services,” she said, noting that services have actually improved.

“Happy employees make for much better productivity,” she said. “That’s a good thing for all of us.”

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