The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about a serious change to work culture.
PETER J THOMPSON/POSTMEDIA
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, Barry Carroll’s small office, like many others across the country, had to adapt.
Carroll is the chief administrative officer of the municipal office of Guysborough, Nova Scotia, where he runs the day-to-day operations of a 60-person staff. While many in Carroll’s situation were stressing over the logistics of running an operation without a physical office, he realized the pandemic presented an opportunity to do something he’s always wanted to — rejig the entire set up.
That’s when Carroll decided he would introduce a pilot program to test out a four-day work week.
“Several years ago we started to focus a great deal on the mental health of our employees,” Carroll told HuffPost Canada. “We’re always looking for something to have a big impact, we thought we could make a real difference here with this particular opportunity.”
A four-day work week, he said, involved his staff still coming in and doing their regular jobs, but the extra day off meant additional time to rest, and one less day they’d have to commute in for work.
“It seems to be something that would be great for young families, or daycare parents,” he said.
Before starting the pilot, which officially began June 16, Carroll had already tested some of the logistics out. During the pandemic, his staff were allowed to split their week — two days at the office, and two days working from home. Carroll figured he could split his staff into two groups, and let them divide up the week.
Under the pilot, Carroll has half of his staffers work from Monday to Thursday. The second group works from Tuesday to Friday. Which means on Mondays and Fridays, the Guysborough office only has half its staff — but they still manage to keep all their services running.
“Honestly, during COVID-19, we found all kinds of efficiencies,” said Carroll. “People were in the workplace taking on jobs that they don’t traditionally do.”
‘I think everyone’s got a bounce in their step’
On the first day of their four-day week, Carroll already saw the impact of working toward a longer weekend had on his employees.
“I think everyone’s got a bounce in their step,” said Carroll. “From the day we brought the idea to the full staff, everybody was really excited about it.”
Carroll doesn’t think it’s a radical idea, he just thought about what would work best for his staff. And his staff seemed to agree with him — they were given the choice to opt out of the program and continue their five-day week instead, but not a single person picked that option. Carroll said if there’s something good that’s come out of the pandemic, it’s this.
“A five-day work week and other models have been in place since the industrial ages,” he said. “And you know, we’ve changed, our workplaces have changed.”
Watch: What would a four-day work week mean for Canada?
Kumar said the current five-day model was created to suit the needs of the industrial revolution, where workers were mostly doing repetitive tasks. The five-day work week was first implemented in the U.S. in 1908, so that Jewish communities could celebrate Sabbath and workers could take a break from their previous seven-day work week.
Factory employers during the industrial age started to run into problems when workers started showing up inebriated because they didn’t have enough time off for recreational activities, and more importantly, recovering from recreational activities. And so they changed the system, giving workers two days off with the expectation that they would show up, in a proper state, for the start of their work week.
Kumar said the five-day model doesn’t account for the fact that as jobs have changed — not just because they require more skills, but also that employees commuting times are getting increasingly longer.
The pandemic, which has forced many to work from home, also meant that people, much like Carroll, had more time to reflect on why they were working the way they were.
“We haven’t been for a long time, we’ve evolved into a society that’s not very reflective and the more reflective we can be, the more we can say, ‘huh, is this working for me when I really think about it?’ said Kumar. “We do need an evolution and some people are further along that curve than others.”
As countries around the world make their way through the COVID-19 infection curve, government officials are starting to address ways to restore their economies. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suggested a four-day week as a way of doing just that, giving people more time to travel and spend money into the country’s tourism industry, which has absorbed the financial brunt of the pandemic.
“Ultimately, that really sits between employers and employees,” Arden said in a Facebook live. “But as I’ve said, there’s lots of things we’ve learned about COVID and just that flexibility of people working from home, the productivity that can be driven out of that.”
We do need an evolution and some people are further along that curve than others.Clare Kumar, productivity expert
In Japan, Microsoft implemented a four-day work week, giving employees Fridays off, and found that workers productivity went up by 40 per cent. The move even cut Microsoft Japan some slack — they saved 23 per cent in electricity costs and found that even one day less of work saved a significant amount of paper.
A 2018 Angus Reid poll found that half of Canadians would prefer a four-day work week, even if it meant longer work days.
“Investing in humanity and respecting humanity will generate greater productivity, greater results, greater retention, less attrition, all of those things,” said Kumar. Shealso noted that one less day of commuting to work could even mean an improvement in the condition of roadways, transit and other infrastructure.
“By changing the hours to some degree you can change the pressure on rush hour, a little bit,” she said. “And also hopefully people would actually get some time to relax, play, restore, build relationships.”
Meanwhile in Guysborough, Carroll didn’t expect a pilot program for his small Nova Scotia municipal office would garner so much attention. He informed taxpayers about the new system, he said, and local news picked it up. Then all the major outlets followed.
“Since then it’s taken a life of its own,” said Carroll. While he said his staff didn’t go into it to become a national case study, he hopes their initiative might help bring about a change in work culture.
“You want people to produce for you these days, they have to want to produce.”
At the end of January 2021, Carroll said his office will evaluate the success of the pilot. But he’s sure that while some problems might pop up, the overall outcome will be positive.
“People are so dedicated,” he said. “That’s one of the basis as to why I knew this would work — the dedication of our staff. That’s the reason this would be successful.”