The initial post that sparked the 4 day work week conversation contained neither sufficient context nor detail. It was unclear if it was advocating for four 10-hour days or four 8-hour days; was the intention to push for legislative reform to the Labour Relations Act? How would future overtime be defined under the Labour Relations Act? A four-day work week is already available to any BC employer who chooses to offer it to employees. Many do. An area that may have a more practical broad range application is flexible working options, such as working from home, flexible work hours and job sharing along with optional four-day work weeks. In fact, COVID-19 may have just helped us out with that.
Practically overnight, COVID-19 forced massive disruption and innovation to the workplace. Many organizations rapidly shifted to implement work from home strategies for employees, a practice many organizations plan to continue post-COVID. One of my clients described how much his life changed when he began working from home. By eliminating his daily commute, he gained 3 ½ hours that he now spends with his young daughter each day. Talk about an increase in work/life balance!
Twenty years ago, when working at a law practice, I worked 4 days per week, 8 ½ hours per day, for a period of time. At another point, I worked 5 days per week from 8:30 to 3:00. As a single mother of three young children, this 5 day flexible work schedule was more beneficial to my work/family balance. It allowed me to accommodate my children’s school schedule and forego the additional financial burden of after school childcare. It may be interesting to know that with each flexible work option I experienced, I had female employers.
A good example of providing responsible context: New Zealand’s amazing Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, floated the idea of a 4 day work week within a clear context of assisting struggling tourism-reliant businesses while international travel bans are in place. Provided it is not government mandated, and carries no additional costs to be borne by already struggling small and medium businesses, a similarly narrow and targeted application could blend very well with the opening of BC’s Provincial Parks for domestic use only.
Careful what you wish for
Development of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is rapidly progressing, with automation and AI taking up many of the jobs previously done by humans. If managed well, this could ultimately lead to a shorter work week, however, new financial mechanisms must be implemented to replace traditional employment incomes. This is where the conversation of pricing automation and guaranteed livable incomes is fundamental. Now this is an area I will press to the forefront of the economic discussion as we prepare for the future.
New kinds of companies are emerging, with new and more progressive working models
There are two other types of companies that are leading the way in flexible work options and other work/life benefits for employees - “B-Corp certified organisations” and as of June 30, 2020, “Benefit Companies”. Check out next week’s blog for more on these innovative organisations and how they tackle social inequalities and climate action head on.
Problems to consider with a mandated 4 day work week
The number one problem with a mandated 4 day work week is that the costs are generally borne by the employer. This may be manageable for large organizations, but can be financially prohibitive for small and medium ones. I fear this could lead to oligopolies where only the wealthiest of businesses will be able to implement it.
As a further complication, with certain 4 day work week scenarios, it requires employers to attract and maintain a larger labour pool in an already stretched labour market. In a 2019 Business report, half of BC businesses surveyed indicated attracting and retaining employees as one of the most difficult challenges facing their operations pre-COVID-19. This in large part due to a growing number of retiring baby-boomers and a lack of affordable housing.
Mandating a 4 day work week across the board would be extremely complex. Consider the large number of employment types, such as the gig economy that employs 73,000 British Columbians, the fishing industry, farming industry, daycare centres, logging industry, retail businesses, healthcare providers and sole entrepreneurs. A one size fits all 4 day work week “across the board” is simply not practical nor possible. As a sole entrepreneur, personally, in an industry where I am regularly required to meet my client’s financing needs against tight deadlines, I would be hard pressed to limit my work week to 4 days. In fact, I’d be thrilled to limit it to 5 or 6 days!
Despite feeling the need to weigh in, I am genuinely disappointed with the timing of the 4 day work week conversation. It showed an insensitivity or lack of awareness regarding the plight of struggling business owners. COVID-19 restrictions wreaked havoc on our business communities. In my roles as a volunteer at three business support networks, I’ve attended innumerable virtual meetings to connect directly with the business community. For many, the viability of their business was and continues to be dire. This, despite the federal and provincial relief programs.
98% of ALL businesses in BC are small and medium businesses. Supporting them as they recover is vital to maintaining vibrant, unique communities, and jobs for families. In a survey in mid May, 2020, conducted by the BC Chamber of Commerce, Business Council of British Columbia and other partners, only one-in-four businesses (26%) impacted by COVID-19 felt able to restart and operate profitably with the gradual easing of restrictions. That means 74% did not feel they could restart and make ends meet! Given the challenges to restarting operations, over half of the members surveyed (55%) expected it would take at least two months to restart, with many unsure if they could re-start at all. Probably not the best time to add further complexities to their struggles.
I support a healthier work/life balance and flexible work options for all working British Columbians. It is undisputed that working less may help with a healthier work/home balance, however on the flip side, if it results in having less income, this can increase economic stresses, leading to poorer health outcomes. Guaranteed livable income should accompany this conversation.
As an entrepreneur myself, I am deeply connected to the business community. As leader of the BC Green party, I will continue to build relationships with my business colleagues and thought leaders to find innovative solutions that work for everyone. Without having a healthy relationship with British Columbia’s small and medium business owners, we will be hard pressed to make the economic transition and Green Recovery that will lead to a more resilient, healthy, socially and environmentally responsible economy.