Several large-scale trials of a four-day workweek in Iceland were an “overwhelming success,” with many workers shifting to shorter hours without affecting their productivity, and in some cases improving it, in what researchers called “groundbreaking evidence for the efficacy of working time reduction.”
The trials were conducted between 2015 and 2019, initiated by the Reykjavik City Council and the Icelandic national government in response to demands from trade unions and civil society organizations for shorter workweeks.
The trials ultimately involved 2,500 workers, more than 1 percent of the nation’s working population, who moved from working 40 hours a week to a 35- or 36-hour week, without a reduction in pay.
The results were gathered from a wide range of workplaces — from offices to preschools, social service providers and hospitals — leading researchers to conclude that the “transformative positive effects” of a shorter working week are beneficial for employees and businesses alike.
“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,” Will Stronge, director of research at the think tank Autonomy, said in a statement to The Washington Post, adding that the program serves as a “landmark pilot” that provides a “precedent for other public authorities.”
The Association for Sustainable Democracy (ALDA) in Iceland, along with Autonomy, a U.K.-based organization that does research on the future of work and economic planning and has been a longtime proponent of four-day weeks, published the findings of the large-scale trials of the program on Sunday.
Issues of work-life balance are “very much on people’s minds these days,” said John Pencavel, professor emeritus at Stanford University who has examined the relationship between hours and productivity. While Pencavel said he did not know enough about the Iceland findings to assess them, he said that research shows employees see diminishing returns at a certain point as their hours increase and also perform more poorly if they do not get enough rest days.
“You will get more in a week’s work if you work six days than if you work seven days,” he said in an interview.
It’s not just workers who are enticed by shorter workweeks, Pencavel said. Companies looking to increase their returns may find it attractive because it could mean paying less for the same output.
Others have noted the possible drawbacks for lower-wage, hourly workers in particular — groups that would lose income and are sometimes left out of the conversation.
“Very often when we think about life conflict and overwork, we have a vision of white-collar workers in mind,” Daniel Schneider, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who studies transformations in work, told Business Insider last year.
Participants in the program said the work-time reductions allowed them to run errands, participate in home duties, exercise and spend quality time with family and friends. This shift often translated into less stress at home and wider social well-being.
“This [reduction in hours] shows increased respect for the individual. That we are not just machines that just work … all day. Then sleep and get back to work. [But that] we are persons with desires and private lives, families and hobbies,” said one participant.
To be able to work less while providing the same level of service and productivity, workers and managers alike made strategic and creative changes to their working patterns and dynamics, constantly rethinking how tasks were completed and using working hours in a more efficient way.
One participant said his co-workers shortened meetings and in some instances avoided them altogether by sending emails or exchanging information electronically.
Other participants said they removed longer coffee breaks to stay focused on their work, with the promise of a shorter workweek motivating them to complete their tasks more efficiently, the study found.
The idea of the four-day week has been gaining ground in countries like New Zealand and Germany, as well as in Spain, where a left-wing party announced earlier this year that the government had agreed to test the proposal in a modest pilot program, the Guardian reported.
In the United States, companies of all sizes, from PepsiCo and Verizon to nonprofit organizations, are dealing with the risk of burnout by offering pandemic benefits to employees, including increased paid time off, flexible work schedules and remote work.
Other companies have also started experimenting with shorter working hours.
The crowdfunding platform Kickstarter recently announced it will experiment with a four-day workweek next year, the Atlantic reported. Buffer, a social media software firm, said early in 2021 that it would continue the four-day system “for the foreseeable future” after successful tests.
Stronge said that although the shift to remote working has given more autonomy to many workers, studies have shown that on average, remote workers have seen their load intensify. And in many cases they ended up working longer days.
“This is why it’s important that the conversation around how long we work for, as well as where we work, is growing. We can all identify the value of time for ourselves, which is different to controlling how we work,” he said.
Following the trials’ success in Iceland, trade unions engaged in contract negotiations and achieved permanent reductions in working hours, with approximately 86 percent of Iceland’s entire working population now either implementing shorter weeks or gaining the right to shorten their working hours, according to the report.
Stronge said these results show that the public sector is “ripe for being a pioneer” of a shorter working week because the government, as an employer, has “unparalleled control over working conditions within a huge chunk of the labour market,” he said.
Given that newly hired employees in the public sector pay income tax, he added, much of the cost of creating new jobs to take up any slack caused by reduced hours is recouped, which he argued makes shorter working hours “relatively cheap.”
As other countries experiment and undergo their own trials and challenges of implementation, in the public and private sectors, Stronge said, the Iceland trials showed that the key to success is to work with the staff “from the ground up throughout the process.”
“There are many examples emerging within the private sector of 4-day week best practice. Celebrating these cases, whilst encouraging others to adopt, will be important as public authorities and trade unions make the case for working time reduction,” he said.