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More B.C. businesses embracing 4-day work weeks

The shift can attract talent and boost productivity, but doesn’t work for all firms, say experts
Kimberly Voll, CEO of Brace Yourself Games, said the company has seen better overall output after adopting a four-day work week model

More B.C. companies and organizations have joined a growing movement to challenge the traditional five-day work week model and allow their employees to work just four days a week.

The central idea behind it is that by reducing work hours, companies will have more engaged and productive employees who perform the same—if not better—with fewer work hours.

In the past year, there was a 34-per-cent increase in the number of Canadian businesses implementing four-day schedules, according to May data from human resources software provider BrightHR.

B.C.-based organizations including the Vancouver Foundation and the City of Merritt, and tech firms such as Procurify and Blackbird Interactive, have shifted to four-day work weeks in recent years. Game studio Brace Yourself Games officially switched to four-day, 32-hour work weeks in January after trying flexible Fridays for a while, with no change in salaries.

“Increasingly, we had been doing research into best practices, and the growing practice of a four-day work week really seemed to show an increase in productivity, in employee happiness and retention,” said Kimberly Voll, CEO of Brace Yourself Games.

“Because humans aren’t so good at focusing and paying attention for such long stretches, and the more fatigued we get, the lower quality our work becomes.… Particularly with knowledge work, there’s diminishing returns on keeping people in their seats for too long.”

Voll said she has since seen higher productivity and better overall performance than when employees worked 40 hours per week “because they feel more refreshed and focused at work.” The shift has also helped the company compete for top talent against large U.S. companies that offer “huge salaries.”

“In our industry, it’s very hard to retain talent, and creating a space that shows you prioritize employee wellness and that you give people a high degree of agency and empowerment, people are going to be happier, do better work and have greater loyalty,” said Voll.

The David Suzuki Foundation, a Vancouver-based environmental not-for-profit, implemented a four-day, 34-hour work week when it was launched in 1990 to provide employees with better work-life balance, and time to recover from working on what can be draining environmental issues, according to the organization.

“The five-day work week was something that came about post-World War II, and everything about work has changed, except for the hours,” said Ian Hanington, senior editor at the foundation, who said the four-day work week is one reason he has stayed with the organization for 17 years.

“We’ve become more technologically advanced, we’ve got search engines and computers and things are more automated now, and usually more people in the household are going out to work … but we’re still working a five-day work week, which to me just doesn’t really make sense.”

Four-day work week not yet for everyone

Michael Daniels, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Sauder School of Business, said a number of factors can be attributed to the recent “renewed interest” in the four-day work week model in B.C. and across Canada.

The pandemic exposed some of the work-life balance problems employees were facing and created a cultural shift toward more flexibility and balance. Technological advancements such as artificial intelligence are also helping to increase productivity, which makes the model a possibility, he said.

However, he said the model does not fit all companies, especially in B.C. where there is a tight labour market and where many businesses struggle to find talent. Companies trying a four-day work week also need to take into account clients and competitors who are still working five days a week.

“It’s still a bit niche, and there’s a lot of reasons why people may be hesitant to try it,” said Daniels.

Vancouver-based work analytics platform Produce8 Inc. launched a three-month, four-day work week pilot project in 2022 but then decided it was not the best model for the company and its employees.

“We have a lot of parents on our team. If they are going to work shorter, they would prefer to have the flexibility to not stress out about going to pick up their kids at 3:00 p.m. if their eight-hour day ends at 5:00 p.m.,” said Marcus Stein, manager of customer success for Produce8.

And as a start-up, the business found it challenging to compare the performance of a four-day week to a typical five-day week, he added. So instead of sticking to a four-day schedule, the company allows for greater flexibility in work hours and measures employees by performance, not hours, so they can work reduced hours once their work is complete.

“The four-day week is not meant to be a trade-off to say organizations need to accept less to make their employees happier. The premise of the four-day week is, if you move from five days to four days, the outputs go up,” said Stein.

Daniels said for employees who are interested in the model, it’s important to understand their company’s expectations when hours are reduced. A company reducing working hours but expecting the same amount of work can lead to more stress and fatigue for workers.

The approach is less practical for hourly employees and those in service roles, he added.

“There is the potential for this to enhance more structural, embedded inequalities between different types of workers,” said Daniels.

“I do see this as a phase of experimentation, but it does seem to be growing. And eventually, I think there will be a tipping point at which it becomes the norm.”

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