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Why we need to consider switching to a 4-day workweek — now

Source | | Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Iceland has made recent headlines by declaring the world’s largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector a resounding success. After more than 2,500 workers moved to a 35- or 36-hour workweek and declared themselves happier, healthier and less stressed, the country is now moving to make this an option for the majority of its workforce.

This, of course, goes against today’s always-on, 24/7 global economy, where long hours can seem inevitable, inescapable and natural. Years of “rise and grind,” laser-like focus and unrelenting labor, we are told, are behind the success of tech billionaires, professional athletes, “unicorn” companies and even entire economies.

Yet the four-day workweek isn’t just for the public sector — many private companies are discovering that by switching to a four days, they can protect time for undistracted work and give people more time for leisure. The results: Increased productivity and creativity; improved recruitment and retention; less burnout for founders and leaders; and more balanced and sustainable lives for workers — all without cutting salaries or sacrificing customer service.

My book about the move towards four-day workweek, Shorter, was published in the US in early March 2020. The next day, my home state of California reported its first coronavirus death, and a week later, schools, businesses and public spaces across America began closing.

At first, I worried that it was exactly the wrong time to publish a book on the four-day week. But it soon became clear — once the initial confusion over shutdowns and remote work settled — that the global movement to shorten the workweek wasn’t slowing down. In fact, the pandemic was making it possible for more companies to shorten their working hours, highlighting the urgent need to redesign how we work, and teaching me some new things about the four-day week as well as the future of work.

The four-day week before the pandemic

Before the pandemic, hundreds of companies around the world, including in Korea and Japan, two countries whose languages have invented words for “death by overwork”, had moved to four-day weeks, six-hour days or other shorter workweeks. Most were small companies with fewer than 100 people, and they included creative and professional service firms but also software startups, restaurants, factories and nursing homes — industries where overwork is common and deadlines can be inflexible.

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