The rural community of Zorra, just east of London, Ontario, is home to one of Canada’s largest public sector trials of the four-day workweek.
The township’s 14 municipal employees are taking part in an eight-month pilot project. The first leg of the pilot ran from September to December 2020. It was paused as staff worked remotely for the first half of this year.
But in the first full working week of July, the second four-month term started.
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Zorra’s Chief Administrative Officer, Don MacLeod, told Global News that there have been no complaints from staff or the public so far.
“For those who have small children, it is one day less. In my case, my father is elderly. So that’s my day to take him to appointments,” he said.
The pandemic has turned many long-held notions of flexible work arrangements upside down. Occupational experts say the past 14 months have provided glimpses into the impact of remote and hybrid work hours on a large scale. Increasingly, managers are evaluating the benefits of reduced workweeks as a tool to improve efficiency, retain current employees and attract new employees.
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In early July, the results of the world’s largest study into a four-day workweek, based on a four-year trial in Iceland by 2,500 officials, were released. It concluded that productivity in Icelandic offices, hospitals and police stations either remained constant or increased.
Zorra’s experiment, meanwhile, is modeled after a larger, groundbreaking four-day workweek trial in Guysborough, NS, which ran last year and was passed as policy in April.
How a compressed week works
MacLeod says his team is divided into one cohort that works Monday through Thursday and another that works Tuesday through Friday. Their total weekly hours remain at 35, but with four 8.75-hour days instead of five seven-hour days. The wages of the staff did not change during the trial.
Alycia Wettlaufer, 26, is the Legislative Coordinator and Deputy Registrar for the Zorra Municipality, where she has worked for nearly three years. She tells Global News there is a learning curve to a shortened week.
“I used to come to the office and do my individual work in the early hours and my joint work later in the morning or afternoon. Now I had to adapt and try to do all my individual work on Monday and schedule joint work for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday when everyone is in the office,” she says.
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MacLeod says the shortened week requires a “mind shift” when it comes to timing deadlines and meetings. And there is scheduling involved in setting up voicemail messages and away messages to reflect a new schedule.
The Zorra experiment will run until November, when staff will assess productivity, benefits and challenges with researchers from Western University’s department of public administration.
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Attracting new talent
MacLeod hopes to use a shortened workweek as a recruiting tool to compete with larger municipalities that can offer more money.
Wettlaufer says it’s a perk that she, and many of her peers, greatly appreciate.
“When the news broke that we were trying this four-day workweek pilot, I got so many classmates messaging me and asking if I was hiring or if jobs were opening because everyone was interested,” she says. “Every week is a long weekend.”
MacLeod says Zorra’s pilot has caught the attention of many others from coast to coast.
“I’ve called from all over the country, from municipalities and private companies, seeking information about the four-day work week,” he says. “It seems to be catching on.”
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Better suited for certain types of work
Chris Higgins, professor emeritus at Western University’s Ivey School of Business, has spent more than three decades studying how companies can help employees achieve a better work-life balance. He says the pandemic has forced employers to go to extremes in offering flexible working arrangements.
He sees many potential benefits of compressed workweeks, as well as unintended consequences that we are only now beginning to understand. Overall, he sees many positives in spreading non-work activities over three days rather than “cramming it all” over the weekend.
“You could do your shopping on Tuesday if that’s easier instead of on Saturday. So you get a spread of the shifts over more days,” says Higgins. “Look at the traffic. The pandemic has shown us that if you take cars off the road, you get where you are going faster.”
Wettlaufer says she saw improvements in her work-life balance after starting the four-day workweek schedule.
“In the first few weeks, I noticed my work-life balance had improved and I was able to do a lot more things with my family and personal life and go to work charged up,” she says.
But Higgins warns that a four-day workweek isn’t feasible for certain types of work, including taxing manual labor or jobs that require intense concentration, such as computer programming — productivity drops on longer shifts.
Higgins says the experiment in Iceland provided productivity-boosting examples that can be applied to all kinds of workplaces. The most important of these: fewer unnecessary meetings.
“If companies look closely at what they can do to reduce stress and make the workday easier, a lot can be done,” he says. “We all know that work-life balance means less work, that’s the way it is.”
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