MIKE WALDEN COLUMN: Will we soon have a four-day workweek?

The common five-day workweek has been around since 1940. That was the year the five-day, eight-hour workweek became standardized by the federal government. The legislation required companies to pay overtime wages for workweeks longer than 40 hours.

Mike Walden

Prior to this, companies were free to set their own workweeks. The move to a standardized work week actually got started in 1869 when President Ulysses S. Grant guaranteed eight-hour workdays for government employees. Then in the 1920s auto manufacturer Henry Ford brought the five-day, eight-hour daily workweek to his auto factories, where he reduced workers’ hours but maintained their pay. Ford concluded that longer workweeks yielded little benefit to auto production.

We may have entered a new debate about the workweek. Recently U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill in Congress to reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours. The bill would motivate business adoption by requiring time-and-a-half pay for work days longer than eight hours, and requiring double-time pay for workdays longer than 10 hours. The bill would also prevent firms from reducing current hourly pay and benefits with the shorter workweek.

Sanders argues that some European countries — specifically Norway and Denmark — have already adopted workweeks shorter than 40 hours. He also argues many studies show workers are happier and less “burned-out” with the shorter workweek, and employers are happier, too.

Why has this issue suddenly popped up? I think you know the answer — the COVID-19 pandemic.

Remember the labor shortage during COVID? Massive business shutdowns occurred, plus the federal government provided significant income support for furloughed workers. The return of workers to jobs was slow. As a result, there was more competition for workers, and businesses used incentives such as higher wages and better working conditions to fill their job slots.

COVID also made people think more about their lives and future. The term “work-life balance” became popular and motivated workers — especially young workers — to put more emphasis on their lives outside of work.

The rise of remote work has also been another factor raising the profile of the workweek. How so? Remote work has allowed workers to spend more time at home, where they can interact with their family, integrate household chores with their work and enjoy more flexibility to schedule necessities like medical appointments and shopping.

A final factor is the on-going prospect of labor shortages. The country’s birth rate recently reached a record low. If continued, this change may result in a smaller future workforce. With employers competing for hiring from a smaller number of people, companies will look for more ways to appeal to workers as well as to attract more people — such as senior citizens — into the workforce.

The conclusion is the power between employers and employees may have shifted toward employees in recent years. Offering a guaranteed shorter workweek, but with the same pay as with the longer workweek, is one way of attracting and keeping workers.

So, is a shorter workweek a win-win? Advocates answer yes. Workers will have more time to relax, spend time with their family, handle obligations like doctors’ appointments and simply enjoy a better work-life balance. For two working spouses with children, childcare expenses will be reduced. Also, commutes to work will drop 20%, thereby helping reduce traffic congestion and pollution. Some studies also find less stress and better mental health for employees working fewer days and hours.

Advocates say businesses will also benefit. Operating a firm four days rather than five days a week will lower costs. Several studies have found worker productivity — meaning the amount of work accomplished per hour-increases with the shorter week, so much so that some businesses will realize increased revenues.

But before you start shouting, “32 hours, 32 hours,” recognize that not everyone is on board for the shorter week. Some studies report worker stress increases with the shorter workweek as employees try to accomplish in four days what they previously did in five. Critics also point out that if all firms go to the shorter week, the total amount of business transactions could fall and shrink the economy.

If all businesses are, for example, closed on Friday, then how does that help families schedule appointments? Then there’s also the same concern as heard for remote work — the shorter workweek would reduce the time available for worker collaboration, something that is extremely important in many companies.

There are two viewpoints about where the workweek debate should go next. One says legislation — like that proposed by Sanders — should be passed with the four-day, 32-hour workweek being accepted as the standard in the country. Backers say the benefits from the shorter workweek are too great to ignore.

The second viewpoint doesn’t reject the shorter workweek, but opposes having the government impose it. Instead, why not allow individual businesses to decide for themselves whether to keep the 40-hour week or go to something shorter? Those supporting this viewpoint ask a simple question: if workers and businesses both benefit from the 32-hour, four-day week, then wouldn’t we expect them to willingly make the switch?

I look for the workweek debate to heat up. One reason is because of the emergence of artificial intelligence, which has the capacity to take over many worker tasks. In this case, the workweek may shrink simply because there’s less work for people to do.

So, will we soon be working fewer hours each week? You decide.

Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University.