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How the pandemic has some Ontario employers switching to a 4-day work week

The concept of a four-day work week is gaining traction as the pandemic has some employers re-evaluating their priorities.

Some companies are paying workers the same to work less, others using ‘compressed’ weeks

Starting in the new year, Juno College's 45 employees will begin transitioning into working four days a week. Staff won't be making up the time, and they won't get paid any less.  (Lisa Xing/CBC)

The concept of a four-day work week is gaining traction as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, with some employers re-evaluating their priorities. 

That's been the case for Heather Payne, CEO and founder of Juno College, a vocational school in Toronto that teaches tech and web skills.

For the decade that she's been running the company, Payne says her focus has been on growth. But over the summer, she says, she had an "epiphany."

"I realized that's not what matters the most," she told CBC News. 

Now, starting in the new year, her 45 employees will be gradually transitioning into working four days a week, starting with one week in January, two in February and so on. Staff won't be making up the time, and they won't get paid any less. 

It honestly seems like the right thing to do.- Heather Payne, CEO of Juno College

Payne is just one of a handful of employers who have decided to make the change to boost productivity, prioritize workers' health and, in some cases, retain talent. The Ontario Liberal Party has also promised a four-day work week pilot if elected this spring.

"It honestly seems like the right thing to do. It's something I want for my own life as well," said Payne. 

The 40-hour work week was adopted in 1914 when Henry Ford scaled the work week down from 48 to 40 hours, correctly believing productivity would improve.

Companies experimenting with a four-day work week include Toronto-based recruitment firm The Leadership Agency, Tulip Inc., a software company in Kitchener, Ont., and a small municipality in Nova Scotia. Iceland's capital started a pilot as far back as 2015 that involved 2,500 people

'A more relaxed atmosphere'

Some of those pilots inspired managers in Zorra township, about 30 minutes east of London, Ont., to test out a compressed work week as well, which began in September 2020. The township's 14 staff worked four days a week and an hour extra per day. The work is split into two shifts, with one group working Monday to Thursday and the other working Tuesday to Friday. 

Human resources professor Margaret Yap at Ryerson University says a four-day work week will boost productivity. (Submitted by Margaret Yap)

The second phase of Zorra's pilot recently wrapped, and its chief administrative officer Don MacLeod has called the project a success, especially since it means extended opening hours. 

"There's something about it that makes people happier to come to work," said MacLeod. "Everybody seems to have embraced it." 

MacLeod said news of the pilot has also helped retain talent, and staff reported more interest from people wanting to work for the township.

Similarly, an Angus Reid poll from 2020 suggested many Canadians support the idea. Fifty-three per cent of people polled said a shortened week would be a good idea. That's up from 47 per cent in 2018. 

Benefits to productivity, but not everyone's on board

Many of the workplaces that have tested the four-day model have reported benefits to both employee and employer. That doesn't come as a surprise to Margaret Yap, an associate professor in the department of HR management and organization behaviour at Ryerson University. 

"It will increase productivity," she said. "Employees are going to think employers are taking care of them."

The trials in Iceland, which took place over four years, found productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces. A similar pilot in Guysborough, a community in Nova Scotia, which Zorra's experiment was modelled after, found employees experienced a boost in morale, too. 

Yap says the four-day model requires commitment from an employer to set an example so staff aren't reaching for their phones or turning on their computers on that extra day off. 

She also said it's easier for smaller workplaces to make the transition. 

But not every employee is a fan of the new work week, says Payne. While her company has received an increase in job applications since announcing the change, some staff have decided to leave in search of other opportunities. 

"It's a different strategy for the company, a lower growth strategy," she said. "I can't fault anyone for [leaving because of] that."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Xing is a journalist for CBC News in Toronto. Email her at Lisa.Xing@cbc.ca.

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