The Institute conducted an online poll in December, asking readers for their thoughts on a four-day workweek. About 95 percent of the respondents said they want to work a shorter week—which to me means employees think they can complete their tasks in four days rather than five. However, 89 percent of the respondents’ companies don’t offer that type of work schedule.
The poll results inspired me to explore the matter further. I interviewed several engineers and tech company executives about four-day workweeks.
Providing more flexibility
Before he retired, IEEE Senior Member John McWilliams was a senior innovation engineer at the Dairyland Power Cooperative, in La Crosse, Wis.John McWilliams
IEEE Senior Member John McWilliams reflected on his time as a field service engineer from 1978 to 1988 with Westinghouse and how difficult it was to be available and prepared to go anywhere at any time. He retired in October from his job as senior innovation engineer at the Dairyland Power Cooperative, in La Crosse, Wis.
“That was tough,” McWilliams recalls. “I did not get the time to physically and mentally recover from previous assignments. There was no time to go on a vacation, attend a concert or to just relax at home.”
Working that type of schedule at an early age negatively impacted his marriage and health, he says.
Westinghouse then assigned him to work on construction projects in Saudi Arabia in 50 °C weather, without time to rest after the job was completed.
“Making young professionals work a long work schedule is not right and has to stop,” McWilliams says. “They should be given a flexible work schedule to encourage them to join a company and stay there for a longer period of time.”
It wasn’t until 1988—when McWilliams began working at Megger, a manufacturing company in Dover, England—that he experienced a shortened workweek: Employees worked half a day on Friday. He says it was wonderful because he could spend more time with his family and return to work Monday much happier and ready to get down to business.
McWilliams joined Dairyland Power in 1999 and went back to working eight hours per day, five days a week. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that, though, and allowed him to work from home. Dairyland then implemented a four-day workweek, which he says provided him with the best working conditions in his 44-year career.
Taking care of tech workers’ mental health
IEEE Member Amel Chenouf is an electronics engineer and a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Development of Advanced Technologies, in Algiers.Amel Chenouf
IEEE Member Amel Chenouf, an electronics engineer and a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Development of Advanced Technologies, an R&D hub in Algiers, has never had a job that allowed her to work fewer than five days per week.
“The only time I worked a nonstandard five-day workweek was during the pandemic, when my company had employees work virtually,” Chenouf says. “It was the only opportunity I had to be with my family.”
A shorter workweek, she says, would encourage more girls and women to join the engineering industry. She says many female engineers she went to school with did not pursue a senior-level position at their company because they did not want to give up time with their family.
“A four-day workweek would allow them to spend quality time with their families and address any care issues,” she says.
She also says giving employees more time for themselves and more time with their family and friends would be good for their mental health. When she would return to work after a weekend spent with friends, she says, her colleagues noticed she was full of energy.
A work/life balance
Amanda Barbosa is a robotics engineering student at Federal University of ABC, in Brazil.Amanda Barbosa
Many people, including Amanda Barbosa, are excited for the potential of a four-day workweek. Barbosa is a robotics engineering student at Federal University of ABC, in Brazil, who is working full time in Santos for Leroy Merlin, a household goods company.
“With a four-day workweek, I can focus more on my schoolwork and have more time to be with my friends and family,” Barbosa says.
“Advancements in technologies, like AI and automation, will help in accelerating the transition to a shorter week,” she adds. “It will minimize the time needed to be in-person at work.”
Increasing productivity with a shorter workweek
Dante Medina is an electrical and electronics engineering specialist at Mercedes-Benz Argentina.Dante Medina
Dante Medina, an electrical and electronics engineering specialist at Mercedes-Benz Argentina, says he believes a four-day workweek would be beneficial for employees.
Mercedes-Benz doesn’t provide its employees with the option of working a shorter week. But Medina says that if it did, employees could have a better work/life balance and therefore be more productive at work.
But, he adds, companies need to coordinate employee schedules to ensure the business’s services or products are delivered on time. Switching from providing uninterrupted technical support to an assembly plant from five days to four days, for example, would require planning, he notes.
Creating a more flexible work environment
Life Senior Member Walter D. Downing is chief operating officer at Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio.Walter D. Downing
The pandemic prompted the Southwest Research Institute, in San Antonio, to be creative when it came to scheduling. The nonprofit provides engineering and science contract research and development services to government and industrial clients.
SwRI’s chief operating officer, IEEE Life Senior Member Walter D. Downing, says that because of how diverse the organization’s client base is, providing employees with a flexible work schedule has been the best approach.
The majority of employees opt to work remotely, Downing says, unless they need to attend a meeting or to complete a task in the laboratory. The flexible schedule lets them adapt to their clients’ schedules, he says, adding that it also has helped SwRI attract more women and young professionals.
“The flexible schedule has allowed employees to adjust their working hours to meet their family’s needs,” he says. “Staff members who take care of their parents or have children can choose the days and hours they work as long as they are available during core hours.”
Employees have to be available three days a week, whether in person or virtually, to do some core activities, he says.
SwRI’s flexible scheduling is just one example of how an employer can accommodate employees.
More than 90 percent of the 61 businesses in the United Kingdom that participated in a study last year of a compressed workweek reported they will continue to offer a four-day week.
A bill was reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March to establish a standard 32-hour workweek.
It is likely to take time for a four-day workweek to become standard across the globe, but I believe it will happen.
This article appears in the June 2023 print issue as “The Four-Day Workweek Is Gaining Traction.”
Qusi Alqarqaz is an electrical engineer, engineering manager, and consultant with more than 33 years of experience in the electric power industry and in the analysis and performance improvement initiatives involving electric utilities. He has worked on electric power projects in Jordan, Qatar, Texas, and Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates. The IEEE senior member writes about technical and management topics relevant to the electric power industry. He is a contributor to IEEE Spectrum and The Institute as well as serves on The Institute’s Editorial Advisory Board.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the United Arab Emirates University. He earned certificates and continuing education degrees from the University of Manchester, in England; the University of Wales, in Cardiff; the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow; and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in Madison. He also holds a professional development certificate in the analysis of distribution systems from Milsoft Utility Solutions, in Abilene, Texas, and a certificate in power system engineering from ETAP, in Irvine, Calif.