Two years ago, you would have thought I was a fool for saying that nearly every white-collar professional would be working from home. If I added that people can be just as productive remotely as being in an office setting, I’d be met with mocking derision. You’d laugh at hearing me say new online video technologies would connect remote workers with their co-workers and bosses so seamlessly that they’d use it too much and it’d become tiresome.
The last year shattered the myth of people needing to trek into the office every single day. It’s high time that we confront other work taboos as well. The post-pandemic future of work should include four or five-hour workdays, four-day workweeks and staggered schedules where people come and go based on their lifestyle needs. This would serve as other options to remote and hybrid models.
The Four-Hour Workday
Putting aside Covid-19, prior to the pandemic, let’s be real about the office. Your co-worker would arrive at 9:45 am with yet another lame excuse. A trip to Starbucks, bathroom breaks and a little kibitzing with the gossipy person in accounting, the guy wouldn’t actually start working until around 10:30 am An hour later, he’d be asking around where everyone wants to go for lunch. This goes on all day long and is echoed by thousands of other workers around the world.
There’s so much wasted time at the office. It’s considered normal to hold a meeting to prepare for the big meeting. Then, you actually go to the meeting for two hours in a stuffy conference room, in which nothing gets done. You wouldn’t be finished, as there’d be a post-meeting, wrap-up meeting to talk about what happened.
Here’s an alternative: companies should offer a four or five-hour workday. It doesn’t have to be for everyone. For those interested, the tradeoff is that they will have to get in on time, work diligently without any internet shopping searches and remain dedicatedly focused. If you are able to produce what is expected or exceed expectations, you’re out by around 2:00 pm
In full disclosure, past executions of this concept were met with mixed results. Digital Enabler, a small, 16-person, German-based company that develops websites, apps and e-commerce platforms, tried a shortened workday. The CEO, Lasse Rheingans, decided to shake up the traditional working hours and instituted a five-hour workday. His theory was that if an employee focuses on their job without distractions, they could finish their tasks within the five-hour period of time.
There was a catch. Phones were locked away, no social media was permitted and idle chit-chat was discouraged. Rheingans figured that his employees would be highly motivated and productive, so that they can start at 8 am and leave by 1 pm This would provide his team with plenty of time to relax after work, have a life and come back refreshed. The CEO contended that employees would deliver better work for clients since they’re happier.
The experiment had some challenges. Employees said that there was pressure to get the same amount of work done in a lesser amount of time. Also, it was an adjustment for them not being able to contact family or friends throughout the day.
Two of his employees left the company. The CEO attributed it, in part, to the shorter hours. Without the usual daily banter and camaraderie, it left them feeling that there wasn’t much of a corporate culture. He said also said, “I think for the first time in their career, they had the time to go home and really consider, ‘What do I want to do for myself?”
A company that Rheingans emulated, Tower Paddle Boards, previously offered its staff a five-hour workday. Stephan Aarstol, the CEO of Tower Paddle Boards, authored an article for Thrive Global last year, extolling the virtues of a shortened work day. “Just because you’re at your desk for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Even the best employees probably only accomplish two to three hours of actual work. The five-hour day is about managing human energy more efficiently by working in bursts over a shorter period,” he wrote. Aarstol claimed that having less time creates periods of heightened productivity and a five-hour workday is forced time management.
Aarstol authored the book, The Five Hour Workday, in which he transparently shared the company’s experiences with a truncated workday. He now says the experiment was a success at first, but then the employees enjoyed their time off a little too much.
The CEO later dialed back the program and changed the five hours to only the summer months, as the company lost its startup culture. Aarstol said, “I had a team of nine, and I lost four people within a 90-day period.” He added, “One of them I fired, but the other three left. So, I had all these great people that had five-hour workdays, and they were leaving the company.” Similar to the German company, Aarstol felt that leaving at 1:00 pm took away from the bonding and company culture.
Aarstol acknowledges that his workers became a little too “entitled” and since they were only at work for a short period of time, they weren’t so attached to the company and more focused on their newfound time off.
Okay, these weren’t roaring successes. However, you have to start somewhere.
The Four-Day Workweek
There have been a number of companies and countries tinkering with the four-day workweek. Microsoft Japan experimented with a shorter workweek program, called “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer.” The company gave its 2,300 employees the opportunity to “choose a variety of flexible work styles, according to the circumstances of work and life.” The goal of management was to see if there would be a corresponding increase in productivity and morale when hours are cut down.
The results of the experiment were extremely positive, indicative that workers were both happier and 40% more productive. To be fair, workers may have tried to make the project successful so that they could have a permanent four-day workweek. It’s possible that the 40% productivity may not be realized once the shortened workweek is officially established and, taken, taken for granted.
Spain previously announced that it would experiment with a trial four-day workweek. The Spanish government agreed to a 32-hour workweek over three years without cutting workers’ compensation. The Washington Post reported, “The pilot program is intended to reduce employers’ risk by having the government make up the difference in salary when workers switch to a four-day schedule.” It will invest around $60 million toward the costs of the pilot program for the companies that want to participate. It’s anticipated that around 200 companies and from 3,000 to 6,000 workers will be involved with the project.
Sanna Marin, a Finnish politician who has been the prime minister of Finland since December 2019, previously promoted shortening the amount of time people work. Marin put forth the idea of companies adopting a flexible six-hour day and a four-day workweek at a panel discussion before she became prime minister. Marin said, “I believe people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture. This could be the next step for us in working life.”
Unilever, a British multinational consumer goods company, headquartered in London, previously embarked upon a test of the four-day workweek. The food and consumer-staples giant chose New Zealand as the test-case location. This study is the natural progression of experimenting with different types of work and life accommodations at the company.
The employees will be compensated for a full five days, although they’re only working for four. Nick Bangs, the managing director of Unilever in New Zealand, said, “We hope the trial will result in Unilever being the first global company to embrace ways of working that provide tangible benefits for staff and for business.”
Flexible Staggered Hours
The Covid-19 outbreak made us more aware and health conscious. When people are returning to the office, companies are making sure that the desks and furniture are arranged for social distancing. There are serious discussions about mask mandates and mandatory vaccinations. Given the concern of not having too many people in close proximity, wouldn’t it make sense for companies to offer flexible work schedules?
Let’s say there are dual-working parents with demanding jobs. One of the parents could start their day at about 10:00 am after dropping the kids off at school. She’d stay at the office until around 6:00 pm At the end of the workday, at about 3:00 pm or 4:00 pm, her husband would leave to pick their child up from daycare or preschool.
A big issue during the pandemic was that many working mothers felt the pressure to leave their jobs to take care of children. It was particularly challenging as public schools closed and the kids had to endure irritating online video classes that necessitated parental help. A flexible and staggered work schedule would smooth out these types of problems.
Intuitively, we could all probably agree, commuting back and forth to an office, which could take up to three hours each day, leaves people exhausted. Once at home, there’s barely enough time for some dinner and little left over for quality time with the family. Add on all of the daily pressures of life and work, it’s easy to see why Americans experience so much stress, alcohol and drug abuse and a high divorce rate.
By offering remote work, abbreviated workdays and shortened workweeks, it could change our entire society. People will become more relaxed. They’ll have a greater say and control over their lives. They won’t feel imprisoned in gleaming skyscrapers, surrounded by crowded, dirty cities.
It would help both the workers and management. We all know that we hit a wall after staring at a computer screen for hours on end. There comes a point of diminishing returns. We’d be better off getting into the flow, do the best we can, then call it a day and come in fresh the next morning or afternoon.
This trend aligns with the changing demands of the workforce in a hot job market. The gig economy has made it more mainstream to work where and when you want. Remote, hybrid, flexible staggered hours, job sharing, four-day workweeks, five-hour days, hot desks and other initiatives are being tried out by companies to enhance employee happiness and retain talent. For many, having these options will provide for a healthier work-life balance. These trends will quickly accelerate as companies recognize it’s a great, smart way to attract and retain workers.