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Let’s Talk About A Shorter Workweek

An animation of a woman working on a laptop, surrounded by a clock, calendar, graphic of a globe, and business cards.
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A four-day work week might sound crazy, considering half of full-time American employees already work beyond 40 hours per week and are constantly reminded of emails on their phones and computers.

But as American workers are returning to the office, many are rethinking how they do their jobs — which includes how much they work.

On Think, Krys Boyd talked with Joe Pinsker, a staff writer at The Atlantic, about an intriguing moral concept: Making American life less about work. The two also spoke about the history of the workweek and how some companies are already experimenting with the idea and showing successful results.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On The Case Of The Four-Day Workweek Boosting Employees' Morale

I interviewed a bunch of people who have these [four-day work] schedules. Everybody was just so thrilled. They were talking about how it just fundamentally changed the nature of their weekend. A lot of people talked about having to cram in so much into two days, whether that was chores or looking after their kids or caring for a relative, and then somehow trying to cram in some amount of genuine rest so that they could dive back into the workweek on Monday. They were saying that having an extra day just fundamentally changed all that and made it so much more bearable.

An animated graphic shows a group of masked workers seated around a table in a meeting. One woman at the head of the table stands, talking.

On The Success Of A Long-Term Care Facility That Cut Hours And Hired More Employees

A lot of people when they hear the phrase four-day workweek, they're sort of thinking about offices and how we need to have full coverage, full days from Monday through Friday or Sunday to Sunday. There are a lot of businesses where they have made it work.

There's this long-term care facility that I think is really interesting because you can't do 10 hours of caring for someone in eight hours for the full 10 hours. So they found that, while they did have to hire more people, because they had reduced hours, they also at the same time found that they were spending a ton less money recruiting people, a ton less money on all the expenses that are associated with hiring, such that it actually only ended up costing them just a little bit more.

But also, more importantly, they found that the quality of care had gone up. There were things like the number of falls had decreased, the rate of infections at the facility had decreased. So there were these positive, qualitative aspects that aren't usually tied up with the length of a workweek that actually improved also.

On Employees Who Make An Hourly Wage And Can’t Afford Fewer Hours

A lot of people who are paid by the hour need to make more money because their wages are so low. Often, practically speaking, the easiest way to do that is to try to get more hours. So what I think is really important in this conversation about the four-day workweek, is that it doesn't just apply to office workers. We should be talking about how everyone can work 20% less, but still be paid the same. So I think in a lot of ways, conversations about working hours have to be tied up with conversations about pay as well.

On How Companies Can Ensure A Happier Workweek

One thing that kept coming up in conversations with economists, as I was writing this article, is that employers could really do a lot more to put up guardrails around the day that would make people substantially happier.

There are policies in Europe — France, for instance, has a legal “right to disconnect," which limits employers' ability to have workers respond to emails after the work day ends.

So we think of the work week as 40 hours, maybe in practice, it's 50. But even just the fact that you have to think about sending some work messages really early in the morning or really late at night — those things have nothing to do with how long the workweek as we're defining it is. But if you could sort of put stricter restrictions on that I think that would greatly improve peoples' well-being.

On Companies Experimenting With The Four-Day Workweek Post-Pandemic

I do think there's an important window here, where these things are more flexible than normal. I do think that median wages are so low in the U.S. that when we look at how the typical worker's life might change, in the next six months, we're much more likely to be talking about pay than we are about workweeks.

If you have to choose, and you aren't making very much money, you probably just want to make more money per hour. But I don't think that it's necessarily the case that that has to be how things are. I would not be surprised if other companies joined Kickstarter and all these other places experimented with this.

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