In the wake of the good news about Iceland’s public sector implementing a shorter workweek, a couple pieces have raised questions about the Iceland experience and 4-day workweek more broadly.
First, Sydney management lecturer Anthony Veal argued that “The success of Iceland’s ‘four-day week’ trial has been greatly overstated.” Some of the objections are caveats about journalistic oversimplification— it wasn’t a 4-day week for most workers, despite the press accounts— but he also raises a couple other concerns (my emphasis added):
In regard to this and similar experiments, it is always possible the “Hawthorne effect” might have been at work. This effect refers to 1930s experiments with factory workers in the US that showed how their awareness of being the subject of experiments affected their behaviour, and hence productivity levels.
Could this have been at work in the Iceland trials? The work units involved volunteers to take part in the experiments and so might well have been motivated to make them work as intended….
Furthermore, in service-industry settings such as the Iceland examples, a control sample of similar workplaces should ideally be monitored to be sure of the reliability of the conclusions drawn.
The Hawthorne effect is famous (if someone contentious), but a four-year experiment isn’t the place to look for it, especially since these locations weren’t being actively observed, but reported on their experiences.
As for the need for “a control sample of familiar workplaces,” I have terrific news! This is exactly what BSRB and the city of Reykjavik did during the trial! They not only gathered data on the performance of employees at places that had shortened their working hours, they also looked at a control group of similar government offices! You can see the results here!
More recently, Ed Zitron’s “The Four Day Week Perception Problem” raises several objections about how the Iceland trial has been covered, and based on press accounts of companies that have made the shift or plan to. In particular, while talking about Kickstarter’s public announcement about trialing a 4-day week, Zitron writes,
Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I can’t help but read many of these people’s promises not as a 32-hour-workweek, but as 32 hours in which you’ll be expected to get your shit done. They are also handling this in such a way that I don’t believe they’re doing the pilots with any intention other than proving that a 4-day or 32-hour workweek is untenable – that work didn’t get done, or people were unhappy and stressed….
My cynicism is also rooted in the reaction that a lot of the business world has had to remote work. When I see companies freak out at the idea that people will sit at home on their computer, I cannot imagine them being respectful of their workers’ time enough to say “okay, that’s the end of the day.”… It would also require managers and executives to mandate and enforce hourly policies and start to pay overtime, which does not seem like a thing that will happen. They’re already terrified that they can’t stare at their workers every day…. Honestly, it’ll require corporate America to start valuing contributions rather than optics, and we all know that’s not gonna happen.
As I understand it, Zitron’s substantive concern is that absent a serious change in mindset, a shorter workweek (whether it’s a 4-day week or 6-hour day or something else) will simply become the new unlimited vacation time— a perk that sounds awesome, but which few people actually feel free to use. This is reinforced by the fact that “nothing I am reading is coming from a discussion (outside of the study) with unions or workers.”
The good news is that so far, this kind of “timewashing” hasn’t happened: companies that have moved to shorter workweeks (even if it’s a drop from 70-hour weeks to 48-hour weeks, as in the restaurant industry) really want to spend less time at work. I’m sure that at some point some bad actors will try to claim that they’re doing good things without actually doing them; any system or good cause can be gamed by someone with enough time, determination, or bad intention. But unlike unlimited vacation time, a shorter workweek is something that everyone can see, enjoy, or know they’re not getting. It’s highly public, which makes getting away with gaming it more difficult.
As for the absence of “unions or workers” in these accounts: I agree that this is an issue with the coverage, but it’s less of an issue in reality. Yes, union presence is negligible in the companies I write about in my book, for better or worse. But the absence of labor unions in most of these efforts is less a reflection of managerial perfidy than a commentary on the weakness of the global labor movement. And in Iceland, the unions were absolutely central to both the trials, and for making it a reality for public sector workers from January 2021.
The other piece of good news is that workers are not cut out of the planning process and companies that move to shorter hours, or are peripheral to making shorter working hours work. To the contrary: a lot of the labor of figuring out how to make a 4-day week or 6-hour day falls to them, because no boss knows everyone’s job well enough to tell them how to do it 20% more effectively. One benefit of that high level of worker engagement is that these aren’t just Potemkin village improvements: they’re real time reductions.
Zitron also writes:
If this was a true movement toward worker productivity, the people championing it (as the study does!) would be championing clear-set guidelines around productivity, execution and specifically time management, in a world where salaries are used largely to squeeze more hours out of someone with the promise of “job security…. [Instead] few people seem to discuss the practicality of the change – how this changes work itself, how work will actually function, and so on.
“Few people” may be talking about the practicalities of the change in the newspaper articles he cites, but there’s plenty of discussion of those practicalities in my book, Andrew Barnes’ The 4 Day Week, and Pernille Abidgaard’s The Secret of the Four Day Week, as well as in various articles I’ve written. And the work I do with companies all about the practicalities— about how you design planning phases and trials to both anticipate problems, and cultivate the mindset needed to make so dramatic a change in how you work and think about work. Here’s the 10,000-foot view of what companies do, from my TED Ideas piece:
No company just lopped a day off their calendar. Instead, they had to meaningfully redesign how they worked. The key to unlocking a shorter workweek without reducing productivity lies in three areas: 1) tightening meetings; 2) introducing “focus time” when everyone can concentrate on their key tasks; and 3) using technology more mindfully.
Sounds simple, but actually putting it into practice is a challenge—- which is why I could write a whole book about it.
As for not having “clear-set guidelines around productivity, execution and specifically time management,” these are all things that companies work out when planning their transitions to shorter weeks. This is a movement that encompasses hospitals, nursing homes, pest control companies, Web design firms, ad agencies, Michelin-starred restaurants, traditional Japanese ryokan, and more. It’s not one size fits all.
Finally, there’s the question that Zitron raises about mindset, and the need for leaders to start valuing productivity or output, rather than time, for a shorter workweek to really take off.
I agree that they’re connected, but I think Zitron gets the causation backwards: implementing a shorter workweek leads people to think differently about the relationship between time, work, and productivity. This is because (as I explain in my TED Ideas piece) companies often try a 4-day week when it becomes
a question of change-or-die. Almost all these companies were led by seasoned founders who found themselves facing burnout or some existential threat to their company. They had concluded that ever-longer hours were unsustainable and thought they could invent a better way of working. For everyone, the benefits of a three-day weekend were obvious: Better work-life balance; more time for “life admin” and family; and more energy for professional and personal development, restorative hobbies and exercise.
Survival is the first order of business, not rethinking the nature of time and capital. But, interestingly, everyone has stories about how changes in practice lead to changes in culture.
Ultimately, the big question that Zitron raises is, in today’s business world, is it possible for companies to actually move to a shorter workweek, or are they too addicted to cheap disposable labor, outmoded command-and-control models, and obsolete metrics to move to a 4-day week in good faith? The answer is to look at the companies that have actually done it, and have been doing it for years.