13 Jul Four-day week and ‘overwhelming’ success in Iceland
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 experiments, run by Reykjavík City Council and the Icelandic government between 2015 and 2019, initially included just a few dozen public sector workers who were members of unions and then expanded to include 2,500 workers from both the public and private sector – representing 1% of the country’s workforce.
Although the experiment was dubbed a “four-day week” most workers did not actually take a full day off work but aimed to reduce their hours from 40 to 35 or 36 each week.
As part of the project, employees from a range of professions — including offices, kindergartens, social service providers and hospitals — moved from a 40-hour working week, to a 35- or 36-hour working week, but received the same pay.
Research into the trials, published this month by researchers from the UK think tank Autonomy and Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy (Alda), showed the time saved at work was largely achieved by scrapping unnecessary meetings, taking shorter breaks and moving services online to allow offices to shut earlier.
Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved. They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores.
Bosses said that because they had to think carefully about how office hours were managed, meant there was no significant drop-off in productivity to the ability to provide services.
The amount of overtime people did also remained flat, indicating workers had not just moved in-office tasks to their own free time.
Costs to bosses didn’t rise either, except in the area of healthcare, where it was necessary to employ more staff to cover the shift patterns.
Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, said: “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.”
Gudmundur Haraldsson, a researcher at the Association for Sustainability and Democracy (Alda), said: “The Icelandic shorter working week journey tells us that not only is it possible to work less in modern times, but that progressive change is possible too. Our roadmap to a shorter working week in the public sector should be of interest to anyone who wishes to see working hours reduced.”
A number of other trials are now being run across the world. Spain launched a pilot scheme in March which aimed to cut the working week to 32 hours, to see if it was possible to boost the country’s economy as it lifted coronavirus restrictions and aimed to boost employment. Employees of companies taking part in the scheme would try to reduce their hours but maintain the same level of pay. In New Zealand, consumer goods giant Unilever is giving staff in New Zealand a chance to cut their hours by 20% without hurting their pay in a trial. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has voiced support for a four-day working week and the Scottish and Welsh governments have also set up commissions to explore the idea.
While the benefits are clear, managing a change in working hours like this can be daunting for HR, payroll and managers. Our customers say some of the key challenges involved in managing flexible working policies lie in making sure they have the correct amount of staff with the appropriate skills to meet customer demand, that flexible working policies are applied fairly across all employees and that the change doesn’t result in an increase in manual processes related to scheduling and tracking working hours.
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