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4-day workweek productivity claims gather criticism

A preliminary survey from a pilot program of businesses trying out a four-day workweek says the change can be made without hurting productivity. Economists are skeptical.

For employers, implementing a four-day workweek might seem like getting something for nothing. Employees work fewer hours, but more efficiently, improving work-life balance with no productivity drop. That's the case 4 Day Week Global is attempting to make with a series of four-day workweek pilot programs.

Last week, the group reported on the "positive experiences" of a pilot in the U.K. with about 70 participating companies totaling 3,300 workers. Three months into the six-month pilot, 46% of the respondents said business productivity at a 32-hour week maintained around the same level as a 40-hour week, 34% said it improved slightly, and 15% said it improved significantly.

But this survey has left some economists saying that 4 Day Week Global hasn't proved much of anything. The main complaint is that it hasn't provided rigorous evidence that a four-day workweek won't hurt productivity.

The survey "merely demonstrates that people are willing to participate in the experiment," said Daniel Hamermesh, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, who recently co-authored a research paper that looked at the four-day workweek. "I would give the finding very little, if any, weight," he said.

"There is no way of evaluating how beneficial it is or, if beneficial, how widespread its benefits could be," Hamermesh said. "The U.K. project tells us nothing about that question."

Hamermesh's own paper, published in June by the National Bureau of Economic Research, looked at patterns of work in the U.S. from 1973 to 2018 and found that among full-time workers, the numbers working four-day weeks tripled to more than 8 million. It did not try to answer the 4 Day Week Global question.

The research found that workers on four-day weeks "earn less than otherwise demographically identical workers in the same industry who work the same hours," Hamermesh said. That finding "suggests that there is some hit to productivity."

Other critics say this effort has no control group of randomly selected employers, and it is unclear how productivity is measured.

"A policy that could lead to an increase in productivity of 25 percent, overnight, is impossibly great," wrote Dean Baker, senior economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in a blog post last week.

Imperfections aside, the pilots have value

Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College and lead researcher of 4 Day Week Global, acknowledges some of the data issues, but said these pilots are needed to convince companies to at least consider the four-day workweek concept.

In response to emailed questions, Schor said a randomized control trial (RCT) is the gold standard. "But how do you get companies to agree to submit to RCTs?" she said. "This is the kind of research that has to be done first to convince institutions and companies to do RCTs."

To measure productivity, Schor said they are collecting revenue data from the organizations and productivity stats from those that have them. "Many of these firms don't have productivity data -- they have KPIs or other performance indicators, but they don't produce the kind of things that are easy to measure; most are white-collar firms," she said.

"Take it for what it is -- self-reports of companies saying this innovation is working," Schor said. "And then spend some time and effort designing more research to study this extremely important innovation."

The four-day workweek pilots by 4 Day Week Global are ongoing. A North American six-month pilot with 38 companies from the U.S. and Canada concludes this week.

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