By Sue Tiffin
The times, they are a-changin’. Work times, that is.
In Algonquin Highlands last week, council approved a compressed work week trial policy that will see many of its employees working four days rather than five, beginning next month.
For many of us, a five-day work week from 9 to 5 (or nowadays, from 9 to whenever you finally put down the mini-computer that goes everywhere with you) has always been the norm. But the labour laws we have in place are a social construct so things can change, even if they’ve always been the same.
It’s not unheard of throughout the world to make a shift to a different working model, even pre-pandemic when pre-existing norms were abruptly halted and we learned that we can – and in many cases, want to or need to – work differently than we have been.
In Iceland, large-scale trials involving about 2,500 public sector employees – or 1 per cent of the country’s working population – on reduced working week of about 35 hours with no reduction in pay took place from 2015 to 2019. The trials were so successful, that now about 86 per cent of the country’s workforce are also working shorter hours or now have the right to work shorter hours. While productivity throughout the trial remained the same or improved, studies show, “worker wellbeing dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance.”
In Iceland, they’re actually working less, a true four day work week – in Algonquin Highlands, staff will be working the same number of hours in a compressed work week, with teams of staff organized to take either Friday or Monday off so that services remain always available. While it will mean working longer with a shorter lunch break on four days of the week, the benefit of that is a long weekend every weekend, for those who work for that township. (The county put in place a model last August to enable employees to work a shortened week every other week.)
Those with a newfound extra day off work will have more time to shop locally, to help their parents, to be with their kids or enjoy solo time off while the kids are in school, to spend time volunteering, travelling or to simply rest: all of the things we tell people to do to live a better life, but that those people generally need to find time to do within two days, one of those days inevitably being a laundry day.
It also means one less day of travel to the office for numerous employees in one day, offering environmental benefits of having fewer cars on the road.
A weekly long weekend is a definite benefit the township can offer to prospective employees in a time when employees are hard to find, but at no cost to the township, and with longer municipal office hours, it’s also a benefit the township can offer to taxpayers.
Elsewhere in Ontario, after a similar eight-month pilot project, Zorra township, just east of London, has permanently shifted to a compressed work week, noting employees appreciated the much sought after flexibility in their schedules, and quickly became accustomed to better work-life balance.
There were challenges for the Zorra employees, too: finding childcare for longer work days, having time at home for daily tasks after those work days, having a longer interruption of ongoing projects. The trial in Algonquin Highlands plans to hear feedback from staff and residents before becoming a permanent shift.
Mayor Carol Moffatt called the move to a compressed work week “bold and progressive,” and she’s right – Algonquin Highlands does often lead the way in doing things first, or a little differently than things have been done before (see green burials, a communications co-ordinator position, cultural stewardship, or an all-woman council). They’ll now be going first to see if a new way of working, well, works.