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A big 32-hour workweek test is underway. Supporters think it could help productivity

More than 3,300 workers in the U.K. are participating in the largest pilot of the four-day workweek. The experiment will last six months as researchers track how people respond to having an extra day off.
Justin Tallis
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AFP via Getty Images
More than 3,300 workers in the U.K. are participating in the largest pilot of the four-day workweek. The experiment will last six months as researchers track how people respond to having an extra day off.

For the next six months, thousands of people across the U.K. will be working 32 hours a week in the largest four-day workweek pilot the world has ever seen.

The experiment includes more than 3,300 people across 70 companies in industries ranging from health care to local fish and chip shops. It's being put on by 4 Day Week Global, the 4 Day Week Campaign, the U.K.-based think tank Autonomy, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College.

The idea is pretty simple. Workers make the same amount of money they would for a 40-hour workweek, but they only work 80% of the time. In exchange for fewer hours, workers commit to maintaining the productivity they would in a five-day workweek.

Calls for a 32-hour workweek have increased, especially as many people around the world are facing burnout from the pandemic.

"As we emerge from the pandemic, more and more companies are recognizing that the new frontier for competition is quality of life, and that reduced-hour, output-focused working is the vehicle to give them a competitive edge," Joe O'Connor, CEO of 4 Day Week Global, said in a statement.

"The impact of the 'great resignation' is now proving that workers from a diverse range of industries can produce better outcomes while working shorter and smarter," he said.

The outcomes of a 32-hour workweek are something that Will Stronge, director of research at Autonomy, focuses on. Stronge, who is also the co-author of Overtime: Why We Need A Shorter Working Week, told NPR's Life Kit podcast last year that in some ways the five-day workweek is outdated and leads to something he calls the creep of overtime into our personal lives.

"Our working culture has changed to be one where it's much more about going above and beyond — working beyond your hours either for better career prospects or simply because it is demanded of you by your boss," he said. "Now, during the pandemic, you're in your living room with your laptop. So it's hard to switch off this creep which has infiltrated our working lives."

If people were given an extra day off, Stronge said many say they would take care of personal tasks or spend more time with family and friends.
Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
If people were given an extra day off, Stronge said many say they would take care of personal tasks or spend more time with family and friends.

Stronge has argued that a shorter workweek would be better for people's mental health and could even increase productivity.

"For many organizations, what you lose in labor time, you gain in greater productivity on the job," he said. "We can't concentrate all the time, particularly if you're overworked and you have burnout. And so reducing the working week has reaped dividends in terms of productivity and worker well-being, which means they come to work refreshed. They come to work liking their job a bit more and wanting to kind of get the work done so that they can have a nice weekend and so on."

Researchers will measure any changes in productivity

As the large U.K. pilot gets underway, productivity is one area researchers will focus on.

"We'll be analyzing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel and many other aspects of life," Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College, said in a statement.

While it will be at least six months before final results from the U.K. pilot are revealed, a similar experiment by Microsoft Japan in 2019 resulted in a 40% increase in productivity. Earlier, a New Zealand company testing four-day weeks announced a 20% boost in employee productivity in 2018.

Trials in Iceland of some 2,500 workers between 2015 and 2019 found that productivity remained the same or improved in most cases.

And as for the extra weekend day people pick up, Stronge said many people say they would use the extra day off for getting personal tasks done or spending more time with their friends and family.

"It does make a huge difference," Stronge said. "And so I think it should — it would be a bit of a game-changer."

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