Why one Ontario town moved to a four-day workweek

Staff in the Township of Zorra now work longer workdays in exchange for a three-day weekend — and the idea could spread, depending on who comes out in top in the next election
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 14, 2022
Zorra Township mayor Marcus Ryan (centre), with, from left to right, councillors Steve MacDonald, Paul Mitchell, Ron Forbes, and Katie Grigg. (Facebook)

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The Township of Zorra, in Oxford County east of London, is a small municipality of a bit more than 8,000 people — it’s also ground zero for a change in work that could see wider application across Ontario, depending on how things go in the province’s next election, in June: longer workdays 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 test period, the local council made the change permanent at a meeting on December 15.

“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 do that?” says Mayor Marcus Ryan. “We don’t need to be bloody-minded about this.”

Ryan gives full credit for initiating the change to Zorra’s chief administrative officer, Don MacLeod.

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

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In the early months of the pandemic, MacLeod approached the mayor and council about changing the way staff worked. The change would be strictly opt-in: nobody would be forced to change their hours if they didn’t want to. The second and third waves of the pandemic interrupted that plan, but, in 2021, the township was able to properly start the pilot. Some staff work Monday to Thursday; others work Tuesday to Friday. The entire staff is present Tuesday through Thursday.

MacLeod also approached Joe Lyons, the director of Western University’s local-government program, to conduct a survey of worker attitudes before and after the change.

The result of the survey, conducted in collaboration with York University’s Zac Spicer, were underwhelming from one perspective: the change in working arrangements didn’t significantly alter workers’ perception of their happiness at work or their work-life balance. But Lyons says even a seeming non-result can be useful.

“The scores were pretty high, both before the pilot and after, in terms of employee satisfaction,” Lyons says. “My takeaway is that Zorra was a good place to work before the pilot, and it remains so. Organizations that have good leadership and good culture are better equipped to take on ambitious and innovative initiatives like this.”

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

(Ryan then adds, with a laugh, “Maybe that’s just the spin I’m putting on this  — ‘we’re just so great at this, so it doesn’t make as big a difference” — but I genuinely believe it.”)

Which isn’t to say there weren’t teething pains when the program was introduced: staff had to adjust their expectations about when people would be available for meetings and accept that they weren’t always going to get an answer to emails or phone calls in the usual timeframe. And scheduling had to account for that fact that people always had to be around for some public-facing roles, such as those in the town’s building department.

The small irritations came with benefits, however: Ryan says that one unanticipated change is that days can be more productive — as many staff aren’t working Mondays or Fridays, those who are working those days are less likely to be pulled away from tasks for “quick meetings,” for example.

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

“It makes really intuitive sense: if you know you’re going to have Mondays off every week, you can schedule all of your appointments for Mondays without using vacation time or a sick day,” he says. “In that way, you get three days off, but you can enjoy two of them a lot more.”

It's possible that a four-day week could find wider application around the province: last year, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca announced that his party, if it were to form government, would explore the potential for taking the idea Ontario-wide.

“It’s been examined 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 it has merit here.”

London North Centre Liberal candidate Kate Graham says that one issue that can’t be separated from the possible expansion of a four-day workweek is the availability of flexible child care; parents won’t opt for a change in their work hours unless they can arrange it, even if they’d otherwise want to (both Lyons and Ryan emphasized this point as well.)

“We know the future of work is changing, and we know the needs of workers have changed pretty dramatically over the last two years,” Graham says. “Right now, most centre-based child care works for people who work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. It doesn’t work for people who work night shifts. We need a universal system that provides those kinds of options if we’re going to be serious about more flexible arrangements for workers in some sectors. These things go hand in hand.”

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

Even if child care isn’t an obstacle for families, it’s still not clear how well 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 at a larger city, Ryan says: “When you have small government, all the decision are much more granular; council members are closer to staff and understand it on an ongoing basis — it’s not like we decide something and then wait back to hear a report from staff in two years. Even within some larger cities, they might not be able to make it work in some departments.”

Nevertheless, he encourages other towns and cities to get experimental with their own workforces, even if they can’t necessarily match Zorra’s four-day workweek.

“This is what worked for Zorra,” he says. “Don’t look at it as black and white; look at it as a more flexible work policy. Don’t get boxed into the question of ‘Can we do a four-day workweek?’ — because the answer might be no. Meanwhile, there could be perfectly viable, other options on the table.”

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