Why an Ontario town moved to a four-day work week

The township of Zorra, in the county of Oxford in the east of London, is a small municipality of just over 8,000 inhabitants. election, in June: longer working days in exchange for a three-day weekend.

Zorra implemented the change on a pilot, opt-in basis earlier in the pandemic, and, after an initial testing period, the local council made the change permanent at a December 15 meeting.

“I just think it’s good to be a good employer. If you can give your employees more flexibility and they still produce the same results, then why not? said Mayor Marcus Ryan. “We don’t need to be blood-witted about it.”

Ryan credits all the credit for initiating the change to Zorra’s administrative manager, Don MacLeod.

“In many cases, having a CAO for 23 years would be a bad thing, a sign of stagnation. In this case, it definitely isn’t,” Ryan says. “Don has a vision, that you’re naturally going to look like a rock star if the staff works really well, and we’ve always had flexible work policies because of that.”

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During the early months of the pandemic, MacLeod approached the mayor and council to change the way staff worked. The change would be strictly opt-in: no one would be forced to change their hours if they did not want to. The second and third waves of the pandemic interrupted this plan, but, in 2021, the township was able to start the pilot correctly. Some staff work Monday through Thursday; others work from Tuesday to Friday. The whole team is present from Tuesday to Thursday.

MacLeod also approached Joe Lyons, the director of Western University’s local government program, to investigate workers’ attitudes before and after the change.

The results of the survey, conducted in collaboration with Zac Spicer of York University, are disappointing from one point of view: the change in working arrangements did not significantly change workers’ perceptions of their happiness. at work or their work-life balance. But Lyons says even an apparent no-result can be helpful.

“Scores were quite high, both before and after the pilot, in terms of employee satisfaction,” Lyons says. “What I remember is that Zorra was a good place to work before the pilot, and it remains so. Organizations with good leadership and culture are better equipped to take on ambitious and innovative initiatives like this. »

“Obviously you’re hoping for all kinds of positive changes, but sometimes that’s not what you get,” Ryan says. “But we also had a flexible workplace before; it was just more than that. If you have an already happy and motivated staff, this change will have less impact than a workplace that is not already happy.

(Ryan then adds, laughing, “Maybe that’s just the spin I put on it — ‘we’re so good at it, so it doesn’t make that much of a difference’ — but I genuinely believe it. ”)

That’s not to say there weren’t start-up difficulties when the program was introduced: staff had to adjust their expectations of when people would be available for meetings and accept that they weren’t. wouldn’t always get a response to emails or phone calls. within the usual deadlines. And the planning had to take into account that people still had to be there for certain public-facing roles, like those in the city’s construction department.

However, the small irritations have had their benefits: Ryan says an unforeseen change is that the days can be more productive – as many employees don’t work on Mondays or Fridays, those who work on those days are less likely to work. being kept away from tasks for ‘quick meetings’, for example.

Lyons adds that one of the most obvious benefits has been flexibility for workers.

“It’s very intuitive: if you know you’re going to have Mondays off every week, you can schedule all of your appointments on Mondays without using vacation or a sick day,” he says. “That way you get three days off, but you can enjoy a lot more.”

It is possible that a four-day week will find wider application in the province: last year, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca announced that his party, if it were to form government, would explore the possibility of extending the idea across Ontario.

“It has been reviewed in other parts of the world, including New Zealand, Spain, Scotland and Iceland,” Del Duca said in October. “And I want us to understand if that has any merit here.”

London North Center Liberal candidate Kate Graham says one issue that cannot be separated from the possible expansion of a four-day working week is the availability of flexible childcare; parents won’t opt ​​for a change in their work hours unless they can arrange it, even if they would otherwise (Lyons and Ryan also made this point.)

“We know the future of work is changing and we know the needs of workers have changed quite dramatically over the past two years,” says Graham. “Right now, most child care centers operate for people who work Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It doesn’t work for people who work night shifts. We need a universal system that offers these kinds of options if we are serious about considering more flexible arrangements for workers in certain sectors. These things go together. »

(Graham also criticized Ontario for being the only province in Canada that has not yet signed a child care agreement with the federal agreement; Doug Ford’s government has repeatedly argued that current federal proposals would not fully compensate Ontario for child care costs.)

Even if child care is not a barrier for families, it is still unclear to what extent this model could be transferred to other municipalities or other large employers. Zorra’s small size made some of the implementation easier than it might be in a big city, says Ryan: “When you have a small government, all the decisions are much more granular; Board members are closer to staff and understand it on an ongoing basis – it’s not like we decide something and then wait to hear a report from staff two years from now. Even in some big cities, they might not be able to make it work in some departments. »

Still, he encourages other towns and villages to experiment with their own workforces, even if they can’t necessarily match Zorra’s four-day workweek.

“That’s what worked for Zorra,” he says. “Don’t see it in black and white; consider this a more flexible working policy. Don’t get caught up in the question, “Can we do a four-day work week?” – because the answer could be no. In the meantime, there might be other perfectly viable options on the table.

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