In Case You Didn’t Get the Memo, the Nature of Work Has Just Changed
COVID changed many things in our lives; not the least was the nature of work. While we’ve been busy figuring out if remote and hybrid work is here to stay, another more fundamental change has been picking up steam – the four-day workweek. Curmudgeons and traditionalists may be too quick to suggest this is just another misstep down the slippery slope of accommodating non-motivated workers and coddling the workforce.
Whether they’re in an office or working at the kitchen table, you will always have employees who will try to skimp on deliverables and minimize their workplace footprint no matter what kind of time clock is in place or the calendar is followed. A shortened workweek is really no riper for abuse than the traditional five-day workweek.
A new study on the future of work released by Ernst and Young found that both businesses and workers are better off and prefer a four-day workweek. In spite of recent hiring slowdowns and layoffs in the tech and financial industries, 40% of the companies in the survey have implemented a four-day workweek or plan to do so.
The story is the same overseas, from Iceland and the UK to Japan and New Zealand.
Not as Big a Change as You’d Think
What’s the best arrangement? Four 10-hour days? Five 8-hour days? Four 8-hour days? That debate almost seems as irrelevant as the idea of a 40-hour work week itself. Work has become much more fluid for many so-called “knowledge workers,” the new euphemism for white-collar workers.
Many people can’t even quantify how many hours they work NOW, as they check company inboxes on personal phones at all hours and accept videoconference invites from overseas for meetings early in the morning or late in the evening.
And at the opposite end, employers have seemed happy to accommodate employees who must leave early to pick up a child from school or step out for a doctor’s appointment. How many object when an employee asks to leave at 2:30 on Friday to get a head start on their weekend trip? Very few.
Work from home accelerated both of those trends – stretched-out workdays and day-to-day flexibility. But we were well on our way in these areas prior to the pandemic, too, with flex work schedules and summer Friday free days … combined with our tendencies toward workaholism.
What About Employee Productivity?
Whether employees are equally productive with a four-day, compressed workweek is less easy to measure than their satisfaction with the arrangement. The evidence in favor seems pretty significant, even though it’s mostly anecdotal.
But the fact that so many companies are moving in this direction, even though the job market is loosening up a bit and the economy is heading toward a recession, is probably an indication that employers aren’t concerned with a falloff in the quantity or quality of work getting done.
Many leaders were pleasantly surprised when remote workers, for the most part-maintained productivity levels during the pandemic. They seem willing to swallow hard and give this a go, too.
They’re probably considering this factor too — with an extra weekday at their disposal, employees can schedule things like car repairs and doctor appointments for that day. And there will be no more slipping out at 2:30 on Friday. Four-day workdays may mean they can draw a darker line between work days and off days.
The chief strategy officer for the crowdfunding site Kickstarter will vouch for the four-day schedule, stating, “The 4-day week has been transformative for our business and our people. Staff are more focused, more engaged and more dedicated, helping us hit our goals better than before.”
The Psychological Effect
I interact with many people who are in a four-day work environment.
They seem more focused and deliberate with their work. They’re less likely to waste time or put things off, knowing they’re always under a bit of a time crunch. They don’t want to lose the privilege of this work arrangement, so they seem more committed to getting things done in that compressed timeframe. Maybe that tendency will ease over time.
For now, at least, four-day workweeks are a privilege, not a “right,” and those who enjoy this workplace benefit will be on their best productive behavior to keep it.
A Recruitment Tool
There’s no question that employees feel more emboldened about their status vis-à-vis their employer than in many years. The Great Resignation may have fizzled just a bit, but the labor market still places a premium on good workers. Labor unions seem to be on the ascent.
Now that employees have experienced the flexibility of a pandemic, work-from-home environment, they’ve set their sights higher – on expanded work-life benefits like shorter workweeks. “Zoom-free Fridays” are good, but they want more.
And Twitter aside, for the foreseeable future, employers will be eager to offer the perks and niceties needed to keep and retain their people. The perceived value of in-house baristas and catered lunches will pale compared to the recruiting power of a four-day week for the new generation of workers.
What’s the Big Deal?
Many employers are wising up and realizing that enforcing productivity through mandatory hours is a hopeless proposition. Knowledge workers will produce as much as they feel like producing. Period.
In fact, ideal productivity in the knowledge workplace can’t be enforced, and it can only be motivated – primarily from within. Today’s office workers will produce if they feel valued and wanted. The more creative the work, the less meaningful mandatory hours and days become.
The Four-Day Workweek will Change Workplaces
Much of what we hear about shortened workweeks is from the employee’s perspective. But this trend will create challenges for many companies. Customers and clients won’t always match their schedules to the company’s four-day workweek.
As the movement progresses, we’ll have similar kinds of challenges and dichotomies as we had during the pandemic. COVID pushed many jobs to remote status but not all. Condensed workweeks will work for many industries, companies, and departments, but not all.
For example, help desks and customer service departments must operate at least five days a week, even if employees are remote. Members of customer service teams will need to stagger schedules so that one or two are available on each of five or six days. While the employees might have four-day workweeks, supervisors and managers might not.
Conversely, though, while factory workers missed out on the opportunity to work remotely during the pandemic, there’s no reason these companies can’t adopt condensed workweeks for many of their employees. After all, almost a century ago, Ford Motor Company led the way in transitioning workweeks from six days to five.
Our current five-day workweek will soon seem as backward as working Monday through Saturday. I have no doubt that 100 years from now, the average employee will have nearly as many days off as on. Thanks to IT advances, the productivity levels of workers in 2123 will be off the charts. Demographic trends will slowly shrink the skilled workforce between now and then, meaning workers will have even more clout.
Take those factors together, and “work-life” will assuredly flip to “life-work.”