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Momentum Growing in Support of a 32-Hour Work Week

  • Pilot programs are looking to the impact of a shorter work week, and one congressman has introduced a bill to make a 32-hour work week the national standard
  • Arrangement can shorten the work week by one day or allow employees to work reduced hours each day
  • In assessing whether this approach is right for you, consider factors such as employee feedback and whether your business is subject to fluctuations in demand

Summary by Dirk Langeveld

The traditional 9-5 job is the lasting benefit of labor efforts for a 40-hour work week. A slogan coined by advocates explained how the eight-hour workday would create a beneficial division of time: eight hours for work, eight for sleep, and eight for personal tasks.

As new technologies boost worker efficiency and productivity, there are growing calls to trim back the work week even further. Some employers are embracing this idea, maintaining their workers’ pay and benefits but reducing their work week to 32 hours.

This approach marks a departure from previous four-day work week proposals, which gave employees a day off but lengthened their other workdays to 10 hours. The 32-hour work week sets the expectation that employees will remain just as productive as if they were working 40 hours, but enjoy an extra day to themselves each week.

Recent implementation

Some businesses were experimenting with the 32-hour work week before the COVID-19 pandemic, but interest in this model has increased after the crisis upended traditional work methods. These showed that employees can remain productive, and often improve their performance and satisfaction, when using remote work and other more flexible work arrangements.

A pilot program in Iceland that shortened some employees’ work weeks by four or five hours without changing their compensation founds that these workers were less stressed, more energized, performed their work better, and had an improved work-life balance. A similar pilot is underway in the United Kingdom, where about 30 companies are shifting to a 32-hour work week for six months.

In the United States, employers that recently announced a change to 32-hour work weeks include the Bay Area tech company Bolt and D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y. A proposal submitted to Congress by Representative Mark Takano of California in July would codify a 32-hour work week by revising the Fair Labor Standards Act, with employers paying overtime for any hours beyond this limit.

Benefits and risks

The main benefits of establishing a shorter work week are that it can improve the company’s efficiency and bolster trust between the employer and its workers. Employees often while away some of the typical workday on distractions like social media or water cooler conversations, which can impede productivity. When the work week is shortened, employees tend to step up to accomplish their tasks in order to enjoy the benefit of additional time off.

A 32-hour work week can also have a beneficial effect on employees’ mental health and well-being by giving them more time to pursue personal aspirations. The CEO of InDebted says that when the company implemented a shorter work week, employees dedicated their extra time to a variety of pursuits, including family outings, professional development, volunteering, and even launching their own side businesses.

However, a shortened work week comes with certain disadvantages as well. These include the potential for increased costs if the employer needs to pay overtime for work beyond 32 hours, the possibility of increased worker burnout and stress as they try to meet their goals in less time, and decreased customer satisfaction due to greater difficulties in contacting a staffer.

While some employees might favor a 32-hour work week, others might prefer a standard 40-hour week. This can create difficulties in deciding how you will implement scheduling across the workforce.

Trying out a shorter work week

It helps to lay the groundwork for a shorter work week before putting one into place. You’ll want to evaluate your operations, determine how you would implement a 32-hour work week, and seek employee feedback as part of this process.

Look for areas where you can improve efficiency in your operations to accomplish goals in the shorter timeframe. This can include efforts to streamline how your company does business, but also steps such as redesigning the office layout (since open office plans create more sources of distraction). Companies implementing a shorter work week have also looked to shorten or curtail meetings to allow employees to spend more time on their projects and tasks.

Decide how employees can set up their schedules under the change. While 32 hours a week translates to four eight-hour workdays, some employees might prefer to work five shorter workdays; this can be particularly beneficial for working parents, who can leave early to pick up their kids from school. When setting up a four-day schedule, you’ll need to determine whether the entire workforce will take the same day off or whether days off will be staggered.

Consider how a 32-hour work week would impact your customer service, overtime obligations, and other factors. You can also improve the chances that a shorter work week will be successful by offering training and guidance for managers and employees on how the change will affect their work.

Before making any permanent change, test out the shorter work week with a pilot program. This will help you identify and address any problems, and also let you observe whether the new approach is benefiting your employees.

A 32-hour work week may not be right for your company, especially if you face seasonal demand or other pressures where this strategy will be insufficient to meet demand at some times of the year. However, you can also consider other options to pare down the number of hours your employees work. These include reduced hours for one day each week or staggered hours, such as allowing employees to work a 40-hour work week for one week and 32-hour work week for the next.

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