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Goldman Sachs has been having a conversation about work-life balance for almost a year.Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Last November, Atom Bank, a mid-sized financial services company based in the United Kingdom, introduced a policy that encouraged its 400-plus employees to work just four days a week. The bank told staff the policy was voluntary, but urged them to find ways to reduce the total number of hours they worked from 37.5 to 34, and to take either Mondays or Fridays off.

In a note to employees, chief executive officer Mark Mullen – who has spent most of his career in high-profile banking roles at some of the largest financial institutions in the world – said he wanted his staff to “spend more time with their families and pursue their passions.”

Across the Atlantic in New York, the multinational investment bank Goldman Sachs has been having a conversation about work-life balance for almost a year, since a leaked report disclosed abusive working conditions among junior bankers, who were working averages as high as 105 hours a week.

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But the parameters of Goldman’s discussion around work-life balance was much different than at Atom Bank. Goldman CEO David Solomon told employees last March his company would “strengthen enforcement on the Saturday rule,” implying that employees would perhaps get to take one day off in a week.

A whole host of employers have started experimenting with the idea of a four-day workweek, driven by an attempt to address burnout and deal with increasingly emboldened employees in a tight labour market. But there are far more companies – typically larger and more established ones – that have been reluctant to entertain the notion of working less.

Experts who advise companies on employee well-being say that many of the workplaces that have resisted flexible work arrangements are deeply worried about productivity, and fundamentally believe that allowing employees to work less will reduce output.

“Lost productivity is a big concern for many employers. In order to ensure that profits and outputs do not suffer, there has to be a commensurate increase in productivity for working 32 hours, instead of 40 hours,” explained Jessica Kearsey, an employment and labour lawyer at Deloitte LLP.

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Now that we’re open to location-flexible work, is it time to revisit the four-day work week as well?

Data from Indeed.com, one of the largest employment websites in North America, indicates that job postings that mention the “four-day week” in Canada are still uncommon. As of mid-January this year, just 12 of 10,000 postings included four-day related terms, a data point that has been relatively static since 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Industries in which four-day workweeks are more common, according to Brendon Bernard, senior economist at Indeed, are dentistry and veterinary-related jobs. “Whether the option of a shorter week spreads to higher-paying salaried jobs is another question. There have been increases compared to 2019 in software development and finance, but the overall share remains fairly low,” Mr. Bernard said.

Tina Dacin, a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business, says there is a vast chasm between how employees perceive their jobs, and how employers are reacting to the desire for greater work-life balance.

“We are all exhausted. We have lost control over large segments of our life so it’s unsurprising that many of us are disengaged,” Prof. Dacin explained. “At the same time, many employers are acting like business as usual. If you think about banks, law firms, those who work 80-hour weeks to make partner, that’s where you’re going to see the biggest pushback in terms of more flexibility.”

When asked about the possibility of a four-day workweek being implemented at his workplace, an employee at the Bay Street law firm McCarthy Tetrault LLP, told The Globe and Mail that it was a “pipe dream.” He also said his hours have got longer over the past two years, mostly because bosses know that their employees can be reached at all hours and now assume staff are not busy with non-work-related issues, given that Toronto has been in a pandemic-induced lockdown for much of the past two years. The Globe is not naming the employee because he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Barbara Boake, McCarthy Tetrault’s national people and practice leader, said the firm regularly solicits employee feedback about health and well-being and has implemented a range of flexible work options, including flexible start and finish times, part-time reduced hours and unpaid leaves of absence.

Indeed, the pandemic has accelerated the trend of flexible work, with scores of white-collar employers allowing employees to work remotely and often increasing paid and unpaid time off in response to surveys showing vast employee burnout. The media and tech company Thomson Reuters, for example, announced a program this week that allows employees to work from anywhere in their designated country other than their usual company or home office for up to eight weeks.

But these initiatives, while designed to improve employee well-being, are entirely separate from the four-day workweek movement which, at its core, is about working less – 32 hours a week instead of 40 hours – and getting paid the same amount. “The workplace trends we are seeing in the market right now are not necessarily a four-day workweek, but initiatives that are geared towards being more thoughtful about how employees are working and giving them more time for slack,” said Stephen Harrington, the national lead of work force strategy at the consulting firm Deloitte Canada.

According to Ms. Kearsey, corporate culture has a tendency to adopt outcomes-based performance management, meaning employers keep wanting to see more from their employees, and compensate them accordingly in terms of bonuses.

But she points out that a four-day workweek need not necessarily eat into productivity. Employees who are more motivated by extra leisure time may express that motivation by being as productive or more productive in a shorter workweek.

The notion that a reduced workweek is the antithesis of achievement-centric workplaces is fundamentally misguided, believes Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, founder of the Silicon Valley-based consulting company Strategy and Rest. He points to the example of Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen with three Michelin stars, owned by the famed Danish chef Rene Redzepi, which instituted a four-day workweek back in 2018 (alongside a raise in menu prices). At the time, Mr. Redzepi said that his decision was motivated by an effort to give his staff a better quality of life.

“This is a place where burnout is a huge issue, overwork is a norm and performance standards are extremely high. But they responded to it. So what that tells us is culture does not need to be as big an impediment to the implementation of a four-day workweek as you would think,” Mr. Pang said.

Mr. Pang, who is also the author of a book about the four-day workweek, Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less, said that often when companies decide to move toward better working conditions, it is in response to an existential threat to the company – problems with recruitment or retention, for example.

“There are institutions, like investment banks and hedge funds, that have designed themselves to regularly bring in large amounts of young, skilled labour whose ambition they can appeal to or whose idealism they can weaponize. These places are more immune to pressures like ‘the great resignation’ and treat problems like burnout as externalities,” he said.

“But these employers are very comfortable with churn – bringing people in, burning them out, then casting them aside. Because there will be scores of others lining up to replace them,” Mr. Pang added.

There are a handful of employers, including Atom Bank in the U.K., that are actually embracing the idea of their employees working less, trusting that it will not affect overall productivity.

One example is Situra Inc. a small roofing and construction company in the Toronto area. The company, which has just 20 employees, first instituted the idea of a 32-hour workweek in April of last year. The move was directly correlated to employee burnout, according to Situra marketing director Chauntelle Facey. “We did a survey to see how people felt about it and it turned out that most of us wanted more family time and time to pursue hobbies,” she told The Globe.

Ms. Facey said that employees had the option of taking Mondays, Wednesday or Fridays off, but everyone had to come into work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Most of our customers do not even realize Situra has a four-day workweek system, because it has not affected efficiency,” she claimed.

But if high-profile employers such as investment banks, law firms and big tech companies – which are often the drivers of corporate culture – are still resisting the idea of a four-day workweek, then what are the chances of it becoming a reality for most workers?

Mr. Pang points out that most people don’t, in fact, work at large multinationals, in which a rigid corporate hierarchy and way of working is so deeply entrenched. This is the case in Canada, too – approximately 70 per cent of private-sector employees work in small businesses and just 10 per cent work in businesses with more than 500 employees.

“It is much more straightforward for small employers to make this change towards more flexible work. A four-day workweek could very well be part of that,” said Zabeen Hirji, a human resources consultant and the former chief human resources office of Royal Bank of Canada.

Ms. Hirji does not believe that large organizations are necessarily opposed to the idea of a four-day workweek. In fact, she says there is a desire, even among the big banks in Canada, to continue exploring how to make work more flexible for their employees.

“With the banks, many of them are saying that each department could decide what works for them,” she said. “I think they fully understand that many employees have this new yearning for life outside work.”

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