The COVID-19 pandemic has blown up work culture as many of us know it, keeping office workers home for now over a year and imposing dizzying safety restrictions on those who still have to physically show up for their jobs. In this environment, calls to shift to a four-day workweek have gained steam. California Rep. Mark Takano introduced legislation last week to reduce the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours.
Defenders say this shift will encourage greater work-life balance and efficiency in a labor force particularly strained by the past year. But opponents question how the move could upend industry and education.
To tap this debate, The Inquirer turned to a manager in human resources and the head of the Center for Black Educator Development, both based in the Philly region: Should employers switch to a four-day workweek?
Yes: The four-day workweek is a proven success.
By Erin Bloom
The most significant work trend to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the reversal of power between employers and employees. Before, the bosses called the shots on when and where work was going to get completed, but today, employees are having a much bigger say. Less time in the office is part of the new normal as employees reshape the way they work to better suit their personal needs and preferences without negatively impacting productivity. A four-day workweek will allow both management and staff to get what they need in a radically new job climate.
The rise of remote work shattered the existing 9-to-5 norms of stressful commutes to steel and glass high rises in densely populated urban centers. For decades, “going to the office” meant something similar to everyone. No longer.
Remote work and hybrid arrangements have opened up at a time when the lines between work life and home life have irretrievably blurred, providing new possibilities regarding where and how employees work. With more and more office space leases left unrenewed, employees are productive working remotely, getting the job done when and wherever they want to as technology has connected the global workforce.
Meanwhile, another phenomenon is occurring. In mid-July, the number of unfilled jobs in the U.S. was at record highs, with well over nine million positions open. What could explain this? Partly a skills gap, but also people taking the time to find something more in line with their needs. Buoyed in part by federal stimulus checks (totaling $850 billion), workers can afford to be more selective when looking for a job.
For many employers, the problem is figuring out how to get these people back into the workforce. They are trying everything including wage increases, sign-on bonuses, gift cards, and even rewards to applicants who just show up for interviews.
Another way to get them back is to offer the work-life flexibility employees really want. A four-day workweek is an attractive incentive that does just that while at the same time maintaining or even exceeding productivity.
Microsoft’s experience in Japan is a case in point. There, they limited meeting times and took Fridays off, and saw a 40% increase in productivity. The Japanese government formally recommends their companies permit staff to choose a four-day week.
“The four-day workweek has been associated with increased productivity, gains in happiness, and reported wellness in the employees involved.”
One New Zealand firm that adopted a four-day week reported in 2018 that the changes were an “unmitigated success,” citing less stress and more commitment from employees. Shake Shack and Shopify have tried four-day workweeks, and next year Kickstarter will join the list. Whole countries like the Netherlands and Denmark already have a workweek of around 32 hours, and Spain and Ireland are piloting the schedule.
The momentum is overwhelming, and companies are getting the message. Here in Philadelphia, employers have participated in “Summer Fridays” that offer employees reduced hours and flexible scheduling.
Returning to the office full time has lost its cache. The four-day workweek has been associated with increased productivity, gains in happiness, and reported wellness in the employees involved. That, combined with other flexible scheduling methods and workplace alternatives, are keys to retaining existing talent as well as attracting the workers who can move companies forward.
For years, my company has promoted workplace flexibility and provided benefits to its clients and staff with great success, especially through the rise of the gig economy. Implementing a four-day workweek may put companies ahead of the curve instead of trailing it.
Erin Bloom is the head of culture and community at Aquent, a workforce solutions company, where she oversees their remote work policies, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, and internal communications. She and her family live in suburban Philadelphia.
No: The five-day week should be reimagined, not ditched, for education.
By Sharif El-Mekki
The pandemic has shone a light on both the disparities and the promise of our public education system. In working to build back better for public school students, we should interrogate the length of and how we use the standard school day, year, and, yes, week. Failing to harness this moment to rethink those temporal confines will only hurt students already furthest from opportunity — who also lost the most during the pandemic.
The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 virus itself, the economic consequences of the accompanying public health emergency, and the toll of widespread and enduring school closures have fallen heavily on Black and brown communities. Their students received less in-person instruction and experienced the most corresponding “interrupted learning” as a result. Communities of color across the country are grappling with how to create real recovery for students in the school year and years ahead. We need smart, bold strategies — now.
For all its failings and faults, our public schools’ response to the pandemic — the instant pivot to distance learning, the innovative ways in which many teachers connected with students and schools served as community safety nets — showed that we can do much more than teach kids to read, write, and do arithmetic from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. With all that we learned, we should be capable of now seeing alternatives to that traditional model of schooling.
The current orthodoxy of the five-day school week has calcified innovation — but three-day weekends aren’t the solution. We could reimagine the week to extend learning time on the four “school” days, a proven strategy especially for low-income students and students of color. Rather than reducing exposure to high-quality curricula and teaching, longer school days could provide educators additional time to collaborate, develop culturally responsive lesson plans, and engage in meaningful professional development.
Then with the fifth day, educators could leverage our out-of-school time (“OST”) community organizations to create enriching, joyful learning experiences that go well beyond school walls. OST should serve as an integral part of our students’ development, and investment in it should reflect that. My 8 Black Hands podcast colleague, Charles Cole, often shares how leaders outside of school made the largest impact on his learning. For our communities, OST has always been a crucial part of the social and learning fabric. For older students, we can partner with local businesses, national firms, nonprofits, and advocacy organizations to provide internships, “learn and earn” opportunities, and connections that can build the skills and competencies in our students that employers demand in today’s economy.
“A four-day week denies students and their educators the time they need for adequate enrichment and academic acceleration.”
Such a rethinking of the school week could actually help ease our national child-care crisis via extended school days while preserving a fifth weekday for kids to get the engagement with peers and social-emotional enrichment they crave.
To achieve real recovery for students, we will need schools and districts to fan the flames of creativity sparked across the public health crisis. If we do not, we risk simply returning to what we had before. But a four-day week denies students and their educators the time they need for adequate enrichment and academic acceleration, especially considering the accelerating inequity we can see for Black and brown students, in particular.
So let’s tear down those outdated contrivances of time and place in schooling, reinvent our fifth weekday, and make good on our shared goal of creating more just, joyful, equitable public education. That is, ultimately, what’s at stake.
Sharif El-Mekki leads the Center for Black Educator Development, is the former principal of Mastery Charter School - Shoemaker Campus, and founded the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice. His writing can be found on Phillys7thWard and can be heard on the weekly ″8 Black Hands” podcast.