The coronavirus pandemic transformed the way we work almost overnight, most notably in the fact that for millions of Americans, cubicles and commutes disappeared from their way of life.
Yet there’s another, just as significant, change that could be happening to work — how much we do of it — and an overseas development could point the way.
Around 85% of workers in Iceland are currently, or on the way to, working four days a week instead of five. And even though they’re spending less time at their jobs, their pay hasn’t declined, according to new research by Autonomy, a U.K.-based think tank focused on labor’s future.
What has changed is workers’ productivity and well-being. They have actually gone up.
To that point, trials of a four-day week in Iceland have been called an “overwhelming success,” according to researchers.
A shorter workweek has been tested in Sweden, and similar pilots are underway in Spain and Japan. Some companies in the U.S. are trying it out, too.
What would our lives look like with less work? And how feasible is a four-day workweek in the U.S.? CNBC spoke with Jack Kellam, a researcher at Autonomy, about these questions and more. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Annie Nova: Why do you think a five-day workweek has been the standard for so long?
Jack Kellam: Historically, the five-day week was a success story for workers, who were able to claim a full weekend of rest away from work. And it’s endured because it’s become a naturalized product in our society. We assume there’s a division between the weekdays and the weekend.
AN: What is behind the push to reduce the number of days we work to four?
JK: In many contemporary economies, there’s a growing sense that people are overworked. In the U.K., for example, we know that 25% of all workplace absences or sick days can be traced back to stress generated by work. And the COVID pandemic introduced a sudden shift to our working practices, as people have gone from the office to remote working.
That led people to question their priorities as to what they’d like to be doing with their lives. It also showed that quite dramatic changes can take place in the world of work relatively quickly. A four-day week is a more real possibility.
AN: What are some of the biggest challenges in moving to a four-day workweek?
JK: Companies and organizations are potentially reticent to introduce what they see as a drastic change. Beyond that, I think some of the biggest challenges are working out details on how to pursue a four-day workweek in certain parts of the economy, like nursing and teaching. It’s definitely achievable, but it’s something that will take some care and planning.
AN: How has Icelandic workers’ pay been impacted by their shorter week?
JK: Salaries were not lowered because there was a recognition that, with improved well-being, work-life balance and productivity, workers would effectively be getting the same amount of work done in fewer hours.
AN: Iceland’s home to around 350,000 people, but the U.S. population is more than 330 million. It seems like this massive difference would make it a very different task to implement a four-day workweek here.
JK: Of course, moving at a different scale presents important challenges for implementation. We should never think there’s a direct application from one setting to another. Nevertheless, even though Iceland is a comparatively small national economy, 86% of the population has made the shift.
That says something significant: It can be a national undertaking. Beyond that, the underlying causes and symptoms Iceland was trying to address — overwork and poor productivity — hold just as much in the U.S., if not more.
AN: What are the societal benefits to giving people more leisure?
JK: There’s so many different ways of coming at that question. To zoom in on one of them, increased time away from work can have real impacts on gender equality. In the Icelandic study, men were more likely to take on domestic tasks, and not to leave them to their partners. It also allows greater forms of collective experience.
For instance, spending a lot of lot time at work can lead people to be isolated from friends and family. In Iceland, people realized how much they valued the extra time they had to pick up their kids from school, to see them in the evening before bed.
AN: I also wonder what people would do with their aspirations outside of their job.
JK: People are able to pick up things they didn’t even know they wanted to do. Time opens up the space for them to form new interests and hobbies.
AN: You’re also getting your Ph.D. at Cambridge University, focusing on the topic of climate catastrophe. Do you see any connection between a shorter workweek and the fight to reduce global warming?
JK: Definitely. A reduction in working hours will be a necessary component of an environmentally sustainable economy. Removing one day from the working week could lead to a vast reduction in the emissions and energy costs associated with commuting, not to mention keeping offices and workplaces warm and air-conditioned.
At Autonomy, we found that moving to a four-day week in the U.K. would bring about the same reduction in carbon emissions as removing 1.3 million cars off the road annually. Additional time away from work can also help people move towards more sustainable practices themselves, such as preparing their own food rather than carbon-intensive ready meals.
AN: So, how many days a week do you work?
JK: We’re a four-day week employer at Autonomy. We try our best to practice what we preach.
A version of this story first appeared on CNBC.com.