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Four-Day Work Week

Hot topics of the day about work are working from home and a four day work week.  The four day work week is the more interesting of the two.

Most people probably assume that the five day work week is an achievement of the labor movement, but it’s not. In 1926, Henry Ford introduced the five day work week to his factory, without reducing worker’s pay.  He had observed that most of his employees were always tired, even exhausted, and he rightly concluded that it came from working six or even seven days a week.  He experimented with reducing the work week to five days, giving his employees with a two day weekend to recoup from the work week. His experiment challenged the dominant theory then, and even today, that production was a function of hours worked.  Instead he proved that productivity is a function of the intensity of work.  Even though his workers were working a full day a week less, their five-day-a- week output was equal to and even greater than their six-day-a-week output. With the success of his experiment, he adopted the five-day work week at his factory, without reducing employee pay. In time it became the norm in developed economies.

In the US firms have experimented with a variety of work weeks and work months.  The general US model has been to redefine the 40 hour work week, which is the basis for the legal definition of the work week, overtime pay, etc. One version is to increase the work day to 10 hours and reduce the work week to four days. However, since US labor law requires a one hour lunch, this meant an actual work day of 11 hours.  Another variation was to work an 80 hour week (11.5 hour day) and then have a week off. This generated a 160 work month and for some the long day was worth the long “weekend”.  Each of these experiments, however, is based on the notion that productivity is a function of hours worked, in contradiction to Henry Ford’s experiment.

In the meantime, technology has improved further as has workers’ levels of education.  And a move to a four day work week is gaining momentum.  In 2015 Iceland became the first country to experiment with the reduced work week in the Ford spirit: same 8-hour work day, same salary but reduced work week of 32 hours. By the end of the experiment in 2019, the country found that workers and employers were both happy with the results: workers had more leisure time and weekly productivity actually increased.  Spain, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan and the UAE have begun experiments of their own.

Belgium has formerly adopted the four day work week, recently passing legislation to support it, but not in the Ford spirit. That is, the four day work week in Belgium is based on a 9.5- hour work day.  Belgium continues to presume that production is a function of hours worked, and has offered workers the option of reducing their work week by increasing their work day.

It remains to be seen what the results of the different experiments will be, but it can be argued that Israel should join the trend.  For example, there are those advocating work from home as a new alternative to the work environment.  However, studies of work from home have been inconclusive about labor productivity, with workers reporting increased productivity and employers reporting reduced productivity. Increasingly, in social media, the same employees are reporting they spend less time working from home, but for the same pay.  The debate about working from home will continue for the time being.  The experiments on the reduced 32-hour work week, however, have shown both employees and employers reporting comparable or increased productivity compared to the 40-hour work week.  It’s this agreement that is important, since our salaries are paid by our productivity.

A four day, 32-hour work week would increase employee’s leisure time.  That doesn’t mean that we will all be working Sunday to Wednesday, or Monday to Thursday, or that we will all get a three day week end.  While employees might enjoy the three-day weekends, some businesses must operate five or six days a week.  One version of the four day work week will be a two day weekend with a third day off in the middle of the week.  People working retail already have that type of schedule, working a five day week but not consecutively. Different industries will have different versions of the four day work week.

However the four day work week is expressed, I think it’s time has arrived.  It’s time that some of Israel’s major employers experiment with the four day work week, as well as some government offices. The four day work week has to be a partnership between employees and employer: employees increase their daily work intensity and employers maintain the same salaries and benefits.

About the Author
Michael Humphries teaches marketing and management at the Jerusalem College of Technology and is deputy chairman of the Business Administration Department at Touro College Israel, where he teaches finance.
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