If you want an example of how once-radical ideas can become entrenched in the fabric of US society, the five-day workweek serves well.
The five-day, 40-hour workweek that has become the standard of American workplaces is the legacy of decades of labor activism, culminating in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this federal law solidified the five-day workweek as a universal standard of labor in the United States.
While this new standard was considered a success on many fronts, it was also a compromise. Five years before signing the FLSA, Roosevelt had supported an attempt to shorten the workweek to 30 hours. And predictions at the time held that by the early 21st century we’d be working just a fraction of the current norm. Needless to say, those standards did not come to pass.
The [Common Future and WorkFour] collaboration reflects a growing interest in reevaluating how Americans work.
Now, some nine decades since the FLSA, a growing movement in the United States is pushing for a nationwide reassessment of the ubiquitous five-day week—calling for a new standard in the form of a four-day, 32-hour workweek.
A New Campaign
Recently, Oakland-based nonprofit Common Future, which works with other organizations to advance racial and economic equity, partnered with WorkFour, a national campaign to convince private and public enterprises to adopt the four-day workweek.
Common Future is serving as a fiscal sponsor and incubator for WorkFour. And the nonprofit is putting its money where its mouth is, so to speak: Common Future has itself adopted a four-day workweek for employees.
The collaboration reflects a growing interest in reevaluating how Americans work and comes amid a new wave of workplace disruption and unrest, challenging the decades-long status quo.
Jennifer Njuguna, co-CEO of Common Future, says the collaboration with WorkFour came out of a process of internal reevaluation that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.
“We wanted to think broadly, not just about the external work that we do, the initiatives we carry forth, but also how we apply that to our staff,” Njuguna told NPQ. “Experimentation is part of our ethos. How do we try things that folks say are not possible?”
After a summer pilot of the four-day workweek, Common Future fully adopted the practice for its own workforce. But the group’s partnership with WorkFour goes far beyond an internal reorganization: they are embracing WorkFour’s agenda to expand the four-day workweek to working Americans across the country—including workers in low-wage jobs.
Such a goal, Njuguna noted, resonated with the group’s values around economic and racial equity.
“We know that people of color, Black people especially, are overrepresented in lower-paying industries,” said Njuguna. “If we think about how the four-day workweek could apply to those industries, we have the opportunity to ensure that this is not a group of people that are left behind, as knowledge workers and other types of [higher-paid workers] get to experience the benefits.”
Common Future is one of several hundred workplaces that have now adopted four-day workweeks, commented WorkFour executive director Vishal Reddy. The organization hopes to see that number grow to over 1,000 in the next year or two.
The goal of the WorkFour campaign, says Reddy, is nothing less than to transform the four-day workweek from an aspirational or experimental workplace innovation to a reality for working Americans.
“We want for every worker and for every workplace to have this, regardless of the type of workplace that you’re in,” Reddy told NPQ. “This isn’t just, like, a ‘nice thing to have’ thing for organizations. This is a must-have and our country has to move in this direction.”
Benefits to Workers and Employers
The idea that switching to a four-day workweek can lead to positive outcomes for both employees and employers is not without evidence.
The four-day workweek is one powerful solution to a multitude of problems.
A trial of the four-day workweek in the United Kingdom, the largest yet conducted, yielded mostly positive results, with a majority of companies that piloted the change choosing to stick with the new work model.
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On its website, WorkFour lists potential benefits to both parties, starting with benefits to employers that include: increased productivity, reduced overhead costs, improved employee retention, improved employee recruitment, enhanced employee health, and reduced burnout.
For employees, the benefits are perhaps more obvious: more time to care for loved ones, a healthier work-life balance, reduced commute time, and increased job satisfaction.
In a nutshell, the group argues that a shorter workweek makes for happier, healthier workers, an outcome that benefits both employee and employer.
Framed another way, the four-day workweek is one powerful solution to a multitude of problems—crises, noted Reddy—that plague modern US society.
“We live in a time right now where there’s a mental health crisis, there’s a crisis of burnout, there’s an environmental crisis, there’s a crisis in which people don’t have time to care for their loved ones,” Reddy told NPQ. “One of the really cool and…powerful things about the four-day workweek is how it connects to different issue areas.”
The four-day workweek addresses many of these crises, Reddy argued. Extra time off for workers means reduced stress and more time to care for family members and attend to their own personal health; and on the environmental front, fewer work days means reduced commuting and power consumption, all of which equate to a cut in carbon emissions.
Critically, Common Future and WorkFour also see the four-day workweek as a work model that promotes a more equitable society, both by changing workers’ lives inside and outside the workplace, and also by making full-time employment more accessible to workers with a variety of personal obligations.
Insufficient time to tend to personal and household matters, Njuguna noted, makes participation in the workforce difficult or impossible for a wide swath of Americans who, for many reasons, require more time to devote to their personal or home lives.
A shorter workweek would also serve to advance gender equality, argued Reddy, who noted that analysis of the UK experiment found that a shorter workweek resulted in a reduction of the discrepancy between how much time men and women spend on child care and housework. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, women spend significantly more time on both.)
WorkFour sees itself as working to disrupt a nearly century-old model of work.
Changing How We Think about Work
For the various quantitative measures that advocates use to push for the four-day workweek, there is a significant qualitative aspect to this movement—an argument that goes beyond productivity and worker satisfaction.
It is time, this argument goes, to rethink the supremacy of the role of work in our lives and the way we, as Americans at least, want to live. In promoting the four-day workweek, WorkFour sees itself as working to disrupt a nearly century-old model of work in America.
“We want to shift the Overton Window [the general consensus] of what workers in this country are entitled to,” said WorkFour’s Reddy.
Common Future’s Njuguna frames the effort as one of reimagining what working Americans should be able to expect not just from their workplaces but their lives.
“We think that the four-day workweek is one of many solutions that can really change the world as we experience it,” said Njuguna. “The four-day workweek really promotes equity by just contributing to a culture where people are not forced to work to the point of burnout, to the point of exhaustion, and really have more opportunity to just take the space and time for the things that they need. Whether it’s caregiving for their families, whether it’s rest, it’s just really an opportunity to think more deeply about the structures in which we exist.”
Reddy commented that the present moment—one of gains for labor in some respects, but also of deep uncertainty over the future of work and the power of new technologies to disrupt major sectors of employment—is an opportune time to reinvent the American workweek.
That means that workplaces that are open to reconsidering the standard five-day model may find themselves in an advantageous position to hire moving forward, Reddy noted.
“We’ve all witnessed…this moment of greater worker power. Folks are organizing more within the workplace. They’re having more conversations. They’re being more selective about where they’re choosing to work, to the extent they can do that,” said Reddy. “And so for those corporations and organizations not seeing the writing on the wall and making different choices, that’s going to be reflected in the talent that they’re able to attract and retain.”