With low unemployment rates holding steady, companies are thinking outside the box and offering bold benefits to differentiate themselves and attract top talent. From higher salaries to flexibility to telecommuting, it’s clear employers are upping their game. Some companies have even gone as far as testing out a shortened workweek. Is it possible that this highly desired benefit could start to be offered by more companies?
The concept of work life balance – with an emphasis on life–has been around for a while, but it is picking up steam. Sweden tested a six-hour workday in Gothenburg, Amazon has tested a 30-hour workweek at 75% pay, and Utah combated budget difficulties with a four-day workweek and a complete shutdown of all non-emergency government services on Fridays. France’s “Right to Disconnect” law, which went into effect January 1, 2017 and provides employees at companies larger than 50 people with the right to ignore emails they receive outside work hours, elevated the concept to a legal right. Practical Guardian, a New Zealand wealth management firm, had such a successful experiment with a four-day work week that it’s considering making the change permanent.
The concept of a 4-day work week has become commonplace, and more and more companies are at least discussing the possibilities and implications. The results of the tests, however, are far from conclusive.
- In Gothenburg, they concluded that shorter workdays may make employees happier, healthier and more productive — but they were also too expensive. The new positions that were created to make up for the lost working time cost a municipal retirement home almost a quarter million dollars.
- Amazon has continued its 30-hour workweek pilot, but only with a select number of its technical teams.
- Utah abandoned its four-day working week due to complaints from both citizens and businesses that new online services meant to supplement government offices with 24/7 support were not sufficient.
- Practical Guardian stands out as the example that a 4-day work week can work in the right situation. They found the four-day workweek experiment so successful that its president wants to make the change a permanent one.
Besides the example of Practical Guardian, which is the unicorn of the bunch, it doesn’t appear that the 4-day workweek is going to see widespread adoption anytime soon. Whether it’s a decline in customer care due to shortened hours or a few hundred thousand needed to cover the difference in labor, the repercussions of a shortened workweek aren’t worth it for most companies.
That said, the concept behind a 4-day work week is worth exploring. Life can be hectic, and most people find themselves making decisions between work and their personal lives. Companies that can reduce this friction will have happier employees. And, perhaps France has it exactly backwards. Instead of mandating that employers can’t force employees to check email at home—which means that employees are only valuable when they are in the office—what if companies rewarded people who were responsible enough to keep tabs on work out of the office by allowing them to spend more time out of office?
Flexible scheduling, floating holidays, remote work – these are all benefits that are highly desired by employees. Instead of a 4-day work week, what if a company allows some employees to work remotely on Fridays—saving them the commute time, and making it easier for them to get the oil changed in their car. But in return, employees working from home have to be hyper responsive to maintain productivity. Offering this type of flexibility can also be a boon for hiring, as these highly sought-after benefits can help the best candidates choose one offer over another.
The challenge is that while rallying cries of the 4-day work week or laws saying that you can ignore email sound great, they don’t work. Different job positions and different types of companies have different needs, so there is no one size fits all solution. Perhaps what is needed is a new employer-employer contract. Employers need to be able to trust employees—and a mandated 9-5 in office work day with no flexibility doesn’t feel like trust. On the flip side, employees need to demonstrate commitment—and not thinking about work after you leave the building is not great commitment.
The reality is that some jobs probably require a 9-5 mentality, and some people prefer the idea that they go to work, work, then go home and don’t think about work. But more and more people are simply looking for ways to balance their personal and private lives. Perhaps balance is the wrong word. We should stop thinking about work-life balance, and think about work life harmony. Companies that help their employees achieve work life harmony may find themselves winning the war for talent, as well as fostering a more motivated, productive workforce.
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