As UAW seeks 4-day workweek, the idea gains ground with US workers

Now, look who wants a four-day workweek: the United Auto Workers (UAW).

The union is negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement between the Big Three Detroit automakers and the UAW’s 150,000 members and voted Friday to authorize a strike if necessary. Among the “audacious” proposals UAW President Shawn Fain has  proposed are a 46% pay raise, a return to traditional pensions — and a 32-hour, four-day workweek.

“Our members’ expectations are high because Big Three profits are so high,” Fain said in a statement. “The Big Three made a combined $21 billion in profits in just the first six months of this year…. While Big Three executives and shareholders got rich, UAW members got left behind. Our message to the Big Three is simple: record profits mean record contracts.”

A four-day workweek might not be as unreasonable an ask as it would have been even five years ago. A new survey of more than 1,000 US workers found that nearly nine out of 10 US employees are interested in the idea.

A survey by business consultancy Morning Consult showed 87% of employed US adults were very or somewhat interested in a four-day workweek, and a nearly equal share (82%) said they think the widespread adoption of it in the United States would be successful. (The survey was conducted May 9-11, 2023 and involved a sample of 1,047 employed US adults.)

Millennials were most excited at the prospect of a shorter workweek. Nearly all millennials (93%) reported interest in the concept, with two-thirds “very interested,” and 85% said they believe its adoption would be successful, the study found. 

morning consult graphic Morning Consult

The survey also indicasted, however, that remote work policies could affect a four-day workweek’s appeal. While 75% of employed US adults reported interest in the truncated approach if remote work is allowed “all or nearly all of the time,” that figure dropped to 51% when respondents were given the option of “no remote work at all.”

More broadly, US workers in recent years have shown growing interest in lower impact lifestyles. The survey asked, for example,  whether American companies should adopt work norms seen in Europe, and large majorities backed every tested policy — with support strongest for extended vacation periods and lunch breaks.

Henry Ford was one of the first prominent leaders to introduce a 40-hour week almost 100 years ago,” said Dale Whelehan, CEO at 4 Day Week Global, the organization that conducts international studies on reducing worker hours. “He proved then that the sector was capable of cultural innovation, and the same is true today. A four-day week would undoubtably lead to commercial prosperity for these companies, but it’s also time the workers whose dedication has propelled the industry to its present success enjoy the benefits.”

Both employees and employers are interested in exploring a shorter workweek, according to research firm Gartner. In a recent survey of job candidates, two-thirds said a four-day week at current pay levels would be the top new and innovative benefit drawing them to a job.

In another recent Gartner survey of human resource leaders, one in five said they’re exploring or have already adopted a four-day workweek in some form.

“The 4-day workweek study in the UK, most recently, has piqued the interest of organizations worldwide, and many US employers are beginning to recognize that a reduced workweek can be a key differentiator for them in what remains quite a competitive talent market,” said Amrita Puniani, a senior principal analyst  for Gartner’s HR Practice.

Not all researchers agree, however.

Forrester Research has chosen not to study the idea “precisely because…it’s not genuinely a topic companies are pursuing right now from what we can tell,” according to James McQuivey, a vice president and research director for Forrester’s Future of Work.

McQuivey said the four-day workweek is a “common idea” whose origins can be traced back to efforts by food manufacturing company Kellogg’s in the 1930s. The belief, McQuivey said, was that the shorter week would allow Kellogg’s to keep people on the payroll “during the darkness of the Great Depression.

“Employees didn’t like the idea, perceiving it was an attempt to pay them less. The brief history of this example starts to reveal why this idea is hard to really tackle without thorough research — the motives can vary, the worker perception can vary, reality once implemented also varies,” McQuivey said.

Companies that participated in a four-day workweek trial over the past year, however, continued to reduce time on the clock six months after the project ended, claiming employees are happier and just as productive. Much of the time savings were achieved by making meetings more efficient, using technology more effectively, and allowing distinct periods for focus throughout the day. As such, workers were able to maintain the same output because of the additional day off to rest, according to 4 Day Week Global’s Whelehan.

Though some have argued that organizations can make more efficient use of employee time using those methods in a five-day workweek, but that would be counterintuitive, Whelehan said. “A huge factor of the four-day week’s success is a reduction in staff stress and burnout, which would be negatively impacted if companies employed these approaches with no reward for workers,” Whelehan said.

Gartner found that a shorter week could be an option for frontline workers who “are craving flexibility like their hybrid counterparts,” according Gartner’s Puniani. She said most feel their organizations don’t take that preference seriously.

“We also know that managers report that offering different kinds of flexibility is effective in reducing frontline worker attrition, a problem that most organizations say has had a negative impact on their business,”Puniani said. “A shorter workweek is one option for enhancing flexibility, especially for frontline workers who must be on-site.”

Typically, organizations point to two basic challenges to implementing a shorter week: The first involves operational hurdles — that the logistics of shifting from a five- to four-day week would be too onerous to take on; the second involves concerns that managers or other leaders simply won’t be on board for the shift, according to Puniani.

“While executives are often skeptical about ensuring continuity of operations or cost, managers are typically concerned about the added responsibility of managing a reduced or condensed work schedule and maintaining employee performance,” she said.

Another obstacle organizations cite is that it’s too complicated to schedule and coordinate a shift from a five- to four-day default, Puniani continued. “But there are more options for exploring a reduced workweek than many organizations think,”Puniani said.

While the 32-hour configuration is one option, some companies might find a condensed workweek — working the standard 40 hours across four days instead of five — to be a better match for their business and workforce, according to Puniani. Organizations could also consider a universal day off (say, when all employees have Fridays free) or a distributed weekday off, where employees or employee segments take off different days to ensure continuity.

“We also know that the advantages of some form of four-day workweek are not restricted to employees. Trials in the UK showed reduced attrition in a majority of participants along with less burnout in 71% of employees,” Puniani said. “Keeping employees — and employees who have the energy to do good work — is a real business benefit.

“It’s true that the 40-hour workweek is deeply ingrained in many parts of the American working world, but a shortened workweek is less far-fetched than many think,” she said.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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