Could AI help bring about the four-day workweek?

By Carolyn Ali

An illustration of a hand holding scissors cutting a day off a calendar of the workweek
The standard workweek has changed over time and it could shift again as artificial intelligence automates repetitive tasks. Photo Illustration: iStock/UBC

Increasing productivity could lead to layoffs or a better quality of life for all

Rapid technological advances have many people wondering how AI will affect their work. It’s likely that AI will be incorporated into many jobs, rather than replace them, according to Dr. Vered Shwartz, an assistant professor in the UBC department of Computer Science, and Dr. Sima Sajjadiani, an assistant professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business. But how increased productivity will affect those jobs is unclear.

Dr. Sajjadiani, who researches “human capital,” or the value that people bring to organizations, is optimistic that society can collectively benefit from an increase in productivity as AI automates repetitive tasks.

“AI technologies are not a type of change that we haven’t experienced before,” she says. “For instance, the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the Internet were both significant advancements that made us more productive and efficient and fundamentally transformed the way we live and work.”

So what does that mean for workers?

“Unfortunately, in recent years, the default for most organizations has been to eliminate jobs if the workforce becomes more productive,” Dr. Sajjadiani says. “But while we might see more layoffs, that should not be the approach.” She believes that the benefits of increased productivity­—particularly when it results from AI systems powered by our collective data—should be enjoyed by everyone, not just the shareholders of large corporations.

A person wearing glasses and a blue shirt stares at a desktop computer.
Artificial intelligence could increase expectations around worker productivity, resulting in increased workloads. Photo: iStock

The standard workweek has changed over time, Dr. Sajjadiani points out. As productivity has increased, hours have decreased. In the late 19th century, industrial workers in Canada laboured 12-hour days, six days a week and worker protests paved the way for the creation of unions. In 1926, Henry Ford announced a five-day workweek for his employees, and in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States established an eight-hour day and 40-hour workweek.

Research has shown surprising benefits of four-day workweeks for both employers and employees. “Now is probably the time to move to a four-day workweek and enjoy our life more,” Dr. Sajjadiani says.

However, Dr. Shwartz says society could also swing in the other direction. “We already have a lot of tools that made us more productive and I don’t think that’s decreased our workload,” she says. For example, tools that enable more team connection, such as Slack, have also tethered people to the office. “AI may just increase expectations to do more.”

Ultimately, she says, a shift to a four-day workweek “would require more of a society change than just technology,” she says. “I think maybe in Canada it’s more possible. In the US, it’s probably not going to happen.”

Learn what skills you need to work with AI

Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC Brand and Marketing. This article was published on April 19, 2023. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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