New Zealand considers a 4-day week: Could that work in the U.S.? An economist explains

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks on February 4, 2020.
Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

In a May 18 Facebook Live video, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the possibility of a shift in New Zealand's traditional work week from five days to four, as a way to give people more time to spend money and to boost the country's economy.

"I hear lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day work week," Ardern said. "I'd really encourage people to think about that if you're an employer and in a position to do so. To think about if that's something that would work for your workplace, because it certainly would help tourism all around the country."

But what does a four-day work week actually entail, and could a policy shift like that be implemented in the U.S., a country whose workers are known for working long hours and taking little vacation?

The first relevant question to ask, says Ernie Tedeschi, economist at financial advisory firm Evercore, is "are you talking about working more hours in a day [over fewer days in the week] or are you talking about getting paid the same amount [to do] less work?" After all, "the responses to [these questions] will not be the same across different companies, different industries, different regions," Tedeschi says.

Don't count on being able to work fewer hours for the same pay

In August 2019, Microsoft Japan cut its employees' work week to four days without any change in their salaries and reported seeing a nearly 40% increase in workforce productivity. Billionaire Richard Branson has also long been a vocal advocate for working fewer hours over a shortened three- or four-day work week. His company, Virgin, is known for its flexibility

"Quality of life, stress reduction, and engagement in our work increase with shorter work weeks," workplace consultant Steve Langerud told MarketWatch

All the same, cutting the work week to four days and yet keeping workers at the same salary is, for most U.S. companies, unlikely, says Tedeschi. A company making this move would be the equivalent of giving its entire workforce a raise, "because [employees are] getting paid the same per week but [they're] working fewer hours, so [their] hourly wage has gone up."

This would be a huge gamble for many employers, especially given the state of the American economy right now: "How are you really going to do that coming out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression?" he says.

'The pandemic may actually help the case' for more flexibility

Workers have a better chance of a four-day work week if their employer is willing to be flexible in terms of how and when they put in their 40 hours. That's becoming increasingly common. 

In 2019, 57% of companies offered flexible scheduling during core business hours, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), which polled 2,763 human resources professionals in a variety of fields. One-third of companies let workers compress their 40-hour work week into fewer days, while another 15% allowed for a four-day work week of 32 hours or less.

"The pandemic may actually help the case there," says Tedeschi, because employees have "just proven that under an extremely flexible, nontraditional arrangement they've been able to get work done." Workers may have an opportunity to pitch their employers the idea of a four-day work week "as long as total hours don't go down," he says, because "that is costless, or near costless, [to] employers."

Ultimately, Prime Minister Ardern said, a four-day week could happen by negotiation: "That really sits between employers and employees," she said.

6 additional job benefits you should negotiate for

Video by Courtney Stith

How to make your case for a four-day work week

If you'd like to bring up the idea of a four-day work week or another schedule change with your employer, "it's important to be respectful and come in with solutions and reasoning as to why" you think that would be a benefit to the company, says Liz Cannata, senior manager of HR operations at CareerBuilder.

For example, have you found that you're more productive when you start your day at 10 a.m. rather than 9 a.m.? Have you found that working at home throughout the pandemic has enabled you to focus better and accomplish more?

Bring your employer concrete examples of why the change you're suggesting could help you do your job better so your manager understands why that change would be beneficial for them, too.

"With strong plans in place, companies can certainly give employees more flexibility in how and when they are working," says Cannata.

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