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Illustration by Maia Grecco

Kendall Schultz was already interested in criminal justice reform before the Black Lives Matter movement brought it into the spotlight this summer.

Though she had majored in metropolitan studies at New York University, she says it was often difficult to find the necessary time to continue expanding her knowledge after graduation, even after a loved one became a victim of the “prison industrial complex.”

“It was beginning to take up a bigger space in my mind,” says Ms. Schultz, who works as the general manager of European, Middle East and African business for Polar Mobile Group Inc., a Toronto-based digital-media technology provider. “We sought to make sense of what we were experiencing as a family and the ways in which the system was causing more harm and trauma for both my family member who was incarcerated and for all of us who loved that person.”

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When Ms. Schultz’s employer began offering staff a day off from work every other week to pursue something that’s meaningful to them personally, she knew exactly how she wanted to make use of that time.

“It’s an immense privilege to have the full day every other week – and soon every week – to deal with those topics that are quite heavy and engage with the work and the activism that it requires,” Ms. Schultz says. “It makes me personally feel more invested and committed to a company when I can sense that I have those possibilities.”

What would it take to get to a four-day work week?

The first known American factory to offer its staff a five-day workweek was a New England-based mill that, in 1908, reduced the standard workweek down from six days to accommodate Jewish workers who observed the Sabbath on Saturdays. Prior to that, Jewish employees would make up the day off on Sundays, which offended some of their Christian colleagues.

Then in the mid-1920s, Henry Ford decided to standardize the five-day workweek, believing that if his workers had more leisure time they would buy more products, especially cars. Gradually, other factories followed suit until the Great Depression made the shorter week standard as a potential solution to underemployment.

Nearly a century later, the five-day workweek remains standard, but some organizations in Canada and around the world have taken the latest financial crisis and sudden switch to more remote and flexible working arrangements as an opportunity to consider shortening the workweek once again.

Illustration by Maia Grecco

As the pandemic forced his 20 staff into lockdown this past May, Polar chief executive Kunal Gupta recognized that many were struggling with the additional responsibilities and anxieties that came with the sudden transition. Fearing that some might suffer from burnout, he encouraged his team members to take two “wellness days” off from work.

The positive reaction he received inspired Mr. Gupta to launch what he called the “someday” program in June. The initiative allowed staff to drop their work every other Friday and pick up an activity or passion project they had always wanted to pursue, but never had the time.

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Mr. Gupta, for his part, has always wanted to write a book and is utilizing his “somedays” to do just that. After a summer of being wowed by his staff’s side-projects, Mr. Gupta recently announced that Polar’s employees would be given every Friday off from work from now on.

Once a radical concept, the four-day workweek gained traction this past May after it was hailed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as a way to encourage local tourism and jumpstart a stalling economy. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, and during a period of sudden, drastic changes to the working schedule that was standardized more than a century ago, studies suggest that more than half of Canadians are willing to give it a try.

According to a survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, 53 per cent believe the four-day workweek is a good idea, up from 47 per cent in 2018. Support for the change, however, often depends on the individual respondents’ circumstances.

“It tends to be younger people [who support the idea], but the real distinction tends to be men who are over the age of 55, compared to everyone else,” says Dave Korzinski, research director of the Angus Reid Institute. “For young women, you get up to two thirds liking the idea, there’s very little opposition to it.” By comparison, Mr. Korzinski says only about a third of men older than age 55 support the four-day workweek.

He adds that current compensation also tends to shape public opinion, with only 47 per cent of those earning $150,000 or more supporting the change, compared with 64 per cent of those earning less. Divisions are also clearly visible across political party lines, with less than a third of Conservative Party voters supporting the switch and 40 per cent actively opposing it. By comparison, more than two-thirds of former Liberal and NDP voters support the idea.

Illustration by Maia Grecco

“There is a sense that it’s unnecessary among that group, whereas Liberals and New Democrats tend to be more from urban centres, younger people, are just a little more open to the idea,” Mr. Korzinski says.

Removing one-fifth of the workweek without jeopardizing the viability of the business also requires organizations to get creative with their internal practices.

To that end, Polar has dramatically decreased the number of meetings its staff are asked to attend and limited all non-essential meetings to 30 minutes. The company has also significantly reduced the amount of channels it uses on Slack, its remote communication platform, and has instituted “no-disruptions hours” on Tuesday afternoons.

So far, Mr. Gupta says these measures have allowed the company to maintain productivity while reducing staff hours, and barring what he describes as any “major business challenges,” he intends to make the policy permanent.

“We had to make changes to ensure productivity, client support, communication, road map delivery, and we’ve had to adapt, but the team has adapted really well to [fewer] physical working days,” he says.

Mr. Gupta admits that the experiment has thus far been successful in part because of Polar’s advantageous position. The small advertising software company employs fully remote knowledge workers who support an already successful product line. As a result, he feels confident his bottom line won’t suffer from switching to a four-day workweek and will continue to provide staff with their previous five-day compensation.

“What we’re going to hear is a lot of people saying, ‘Yeah, it seemed good, not a lot of complaints, there were a few wrinkles and we figured it out,’” says Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group, a New York-based human resources consulting firm. “What you’re not going to get from almost any organization is any real reliable data to say we really tested it, we really evaluated it and we really know if it worked or not.”

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Mr. Effron argues that if an organization can truly be more productive by cutting staff hours or reducing the number of days they work, it suggests there were inefficiencies that existed previously.

“If you could so easily switch from five days of work to four days, what does that say about how your company is operating today?” he says. “If I say, ‘You know what, boss, I can do as much in four days as I used to do in five,’ my first question would be, ‘Why don’t you get more done in five days? Sounds like there’s a lot of slack in your time if you’re able to squeeze your five days into four.’”

Furthermore, Mr. Effron fears that the four-day workweek is only applicable to certain roles and industries, and suggests that a switch could ultimately contribute to greater social inequality.

“You get to have flexibility in your career, but the person who drives your kids’ school bus or the person who is ensuring your hotel room is clean doesn’t get to take that fifth day off,” he says, pointing to what he calls “inherent elitism” in the idea. “If you want to drive more inequality, this is a very efficient way of doing that.”

Such fears have largely kept the four-day workweek within the realm of thought experiment, perhaps until now.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the shores of Guysborough, N.S. – a small rural municipality with less than 1,000 residents roughly 275 kilometres east of Halifax – the local government switched to a two-days-on, two-days-off schedule for its roughly 60 municipal staff. Then in April, the district switched to a four-day workweek, with half of its staff working 10 hours a day from Monday to Thursday, and the remainder working 10 hours a day from Tuesday to Friday.

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According to Barry Carroll, the chief administrative officer for the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, the change allowed the district to extend municipal services by two hours each day, while reducing the number of days its staff have to show up to work.

“On the Monday and on the Friday all of our services are covered, we’re just not doing the extra things on those days,” he says, adding that more intensive tasks are designated for the three days in between, when all staff are working 10-hour days.

Mr. Carroll says the policy wasn’t limited to office-bound workers, either, and he suspects the benefits might be even greater for those who provide in-person services, such as road maintenance, waste management, sewer services and recreation services.

“Our community is about 22,000 square kilometres, so we have to send a work crew an hour from their work base, and now they have a longer time to spend there,” he says. “They’re not spending as much time travelling, they’re spending more time on work sites.”

This coming January, nine months after the experiment was initiated, Mr. Carroll says the community plans to use an outside consultant to run a full evaluation in order to determine whether the pilot project will be made permanent.

Though he doesn’t yet have the data to back it up, Mr. Carroll says there are signs that suggest the experiment has been successful so far.

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“Out in the public it’s been pretty widely received [as positive]; we haven’t had any negative feedback whatsoever,” he says. “I think we’ve been as productive, if not more productive; when employees are happier, they tend to want to work more for your organization, and I think we’re seeing that.

Before running a full investigation, however, Mr. Carroll and the citizens of Guysborough won’t really know for sure.

“The value from the results we’re seeing early on warrants taking the time to look at alternative work models," Mr. Carroll says. “If we determine in the end that it doesn’t work, or it won’t work, at least we’ve looked at it.”

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