Quinn Ross had long been intrigued by the concept of a four-day workweek. But when the COVID-19 pandemic made a noticeable impact on his employees’ mental health and well-being, he felt the time was right to move his full-service law firm to a compressed schedule.
At first, the 50 employees of The Ross Firm, based in Southwestern Ontario, moved to a staggered schedule of four 10-hour days – ensuring that all six locations were fully staffed five days a week.
“We rolled out the compressed week and immediately had a really great uptick in productivity and overall psychological wellbeing, based on our weekly surveys,” Mr. Ross said. “Then that quickly started to drop as people burned out on 10-hour days.”
A couple of weeks later, the firm implemented a schedule of four eight-hour days, which has remained in place ever since. Cutting a full day from a business that, as Mr. Ross puts it, “sells hours,” required a thorough audit of its practices in search of efficiencies. He said the company leaned on technologies such as task tracking systems, e-mail sorting and saving protocols, and instant messaging platforms to streamline its processes and ensure staff members could easily step in for absent colleagues.
“It requires a very efficient landscape,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it if we weren’t tech heavy and process lean.”
Since switching to a four-day workweek, Mr. Ross says the firm has tripled in size, enjoyed double-digit percentage growth to its bottom line and significantly increased its billable hours. The company has also enjoyed much higher talent attraction and retention rates, and fewer sick days and absences, compared with its peers. He adds that with the right processes and support systems, just about any organization can make a similar transition.
Once considered little more than a thought experiment, the condensed schedule is quietly gaining momentum, with many business leaders now viewing it as an inevitability in the coming years.
“We know it’s not going to be a one size fits-all,” said David King, the senior managing director of human resources consulting firm Robert Half Canada. “For some organizations it could mean reduced hours of work, but I’m sure a lot of organizations would see it as the same output, 40-hours of a workweek, but condensed into four days instead of five.”
According to a recent study conducted by Robert Half Canada, 91 per cent of senior managers support a workweek of four 10-hour days for their team, and 69 per cent anticipate their company will implement it within the next five years. When asked what they most wanted from their professional lives this year, 23 per cent of employees ranked a four-day workweek as their top choice, compared with 21 per cent who preferred a raise.
“It gives you a sense of just how important this is for the workforce,” Mr. King said. He adds that, like remote work, the four-day workweek isn’t a new concept, but is similarly one that many employers are taking more seriously in the wake of the pandemic and the Great Resignation that followed.
“The challenges around attraction and retention and ultimately engagement of their workforce and the human capital part of their company is a very high concern for a lot of boardrooms today. … Employees feel there’s power in their stance on this, and if they can’t find it in a particular organization, they may seek it in another one, and they’re willing to vote with their feet.”
At present only a limited number of Canadian organizations have experimented with a condensed schedule, but advocates say momentum is building owing to a labour market that remains historically competitive. The country’s unemployment rate was 5 per cent in December, just a hair above the record low of 4.9 per cent recorded last June and July.
“I’ve heard about 20 or 30 companies in Canada who are doing this – I’m not sure I could have named 10 last year, or even five,” said Joe O’Connor, the director of the Toronto-based Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence.
“This has gone from something that was extremely niche and very much in the philosophical, conceptual conversation to something that has become a practical reality for a relatively small number in percentage terms but a much more substantial number of firms – with a significant cross-industry spread – and I think you’ll see the same kind of multiplication in 2023.”
Mr. O’Connor says the transition to a four-day workweek – when coupled with the right support systems, policies, tools and processes — is realistically achievable for most, but suggests some organizations are better positioned than others. For example, those that rely on shift work and don’t currently conform to a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday schedule might experience more challenges than those that already offer location flexibility and perks such as half-day Fridays in the summer.
“We’ll continue to see examples in manufacturing, we’ll continue to see examples in hospitality and retail, but they’re not likely to be the industries that transition en masse to this earliest,” he said. “White-collar knowledge work industries where we’ve seen the largest demand for this to date, I would be very surprised if in five years’ time it wasn’t something that is not just a competitive advantage, but a competitive disadvantage if you’re not doing it.”