Iceland Tried a Shortened Workweek and It Was an ‘Overwhelming Success’


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Source: Forbes

As remote work became a roaring success for both companies and employees during the pandemic, it opened our eyes to new possibilities of how we can lead a better work-life balance. We now know that it’s not necessary to be stuck in an office building for over eight hours a day, five days a week.

There are growing conversations about four-day workweeks and hybrid models, in which you’d be in the office two or three days a week and at home for the rest of the time. Staggered flexible hours and abbreviated workdays are also being tried out.

A recent study of 2,500 workers in Iceland—more than 1% of the workforce—was conducted to see if shortened workdays lead to more productivity and a happier workforce. The trials were made across an array of different types of workplaces.

Iceland, similar to other Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, offers generous social services for its citizens. The country has a strong healthcare system, income equality and paid parental leave for mothers and fathers. Iceland differs from its neighbors, as the country has longer working hours.

Between 2015 to 2019, Iceland conducted test cases of a 35-to-36-hour workweek without any calls for a commensurate cut in pay. To ensure quality control, the results were analyzed by Autonomy and the Association for Sustainability and Democracy.

Here are highlights of the study:

  • The trials were an overwhelming success, and since completion, 86% of the country’s workforce are now working shorter hours or gaining the right to shorten their hours.
  • Productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces.
  • Worker well-being dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.
  • The trials also remained revenue neutral for both the city council and the government, providing a crucial and so far largely overlooked blueprint of how future trials might be organized in other countries around the world.

Based upon the stellar results, Icelandic trade unions negotiated for a reduction in working hours. The study also led to a significant change in Iceland. Nearly 90% of the working population now have reduced hours or other accommodations. Worker stress and burnout lessened. There was an improvement in work-life balance among the respondents.

“This study shows that the world’s largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success. It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks—and lessons can be learned for other governments,” said Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy.

The concept of a four-day workweek has gained some support in the United Kingdom. About 45 members of parliament called for a commission to examine doing something similar to Iceland’s project. Peter Cheese, chair of the government’s Flexible Working Taskforce, said that a four-day workweek and flexible working arrangements “can and should be seen as just as much an acceptable way of working as a more standard five-day working week.” He added, “These different forms of working should be seen as part of the norm. There are a variety of mechanisms by which you can support people in these more flexible ways of working, which can be helpful in terms of inclusion and well-being and balance of life.”

Spain previously announced that it would experiment with a trial four-day workweek. The Spanish government agreed to a 32-hour workweek over three years without cutting workers’ compensation. The Washington Post reported, “The pilot program is intended to reduce employers’ risk by having the government make up the difference in salary when workers switch to a four-day schedule.” It will invest around $60 million toward the costs of the pilot program for the companies that want to participate. It’s anticipated that around 200 companies—3,000 to 6,000 workers—will be involved with the project.

There have been a number of other companies and countries experimenting with the four-day workweek and other flexible arrangements. Microsoft Japan ran a trial of a shorter workweek program, called “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer.” The company gave its 2,300 employees the opportunity to “choose a variety of flexible work styles, according to the circumstances of work and life.” The goal of management was to see if there would be a corresponding increase in productivity and morale when hours are cut down. The results of the experiment were extremely positive, indicative that workers were both happier and 40% more productive.

Japan is taking the next step and is following Spain’s lead. The country is considering implementing a four-day workweek. It’s somewhat surprising given Japan’s hustle-porn work culture, which is as bad or even more brutal than America’s propensity to work incredibly long hours with little or no vacation time.

The Japanese government offered plans to persuade companies to adopt four-day workweeks. This would come as a relief to many workers. The strenuously long hours that “salarymen” (the term used for workers) put in led to deaths by overwork. It’s so commonplace that Japan has a term for it—karōshi. “The government is really very keen for this change in attitude to take root at Japanese companies,” said Martin Schultz, the chief policy economist at Fujitsu’s global market intelligence unit.

Andrew Barnes, the founder of New Zealand-based financial services firm Perpetual Guardian, and his partner, Charlotte Lockhart, are on a mission to get corporations to change the traditional workweek to only four days. Barnes previously implemented a four-day workweek at his company. The results were so positive that Barnes embarked upon this campaign to get other companies to join him.

The forward-thinking executives established the 4 Day Week Global Foundation to fund research into the future of work and workplace well-being. It’s intended to be a multinational coalition moving companies toward widespread adoption of a four-day workweek.  

The duo pointed out that last year shattered the myth of people needing to trek into the office every single day. It’s high time that we confront other work taboos too. In addition to the four-day workweek, the two leaders of the movement say that companies can be creative and innovative. The post-pandemic future of work could also include four or five-hour workdays, half days or staggered flexible schedules where people come and go based on their lifestyle needs, as well as hybrid and remote models. Its exhilarating to see these worker-friendly changes taking place so quickly.

Follow Jack Kelly on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out his website or some of his other work here

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