I want to start today’s article with a confession. I had never worked from home a day in my life until COVID-19, but now that I am in a hybrid model where I’m only in the office a couple of times a week I don’t want to ever go back to the way things were before.
I am not alone. For almost two years now, survey after survey has said employees in white collar jobs discovered they liked WFH/WFA/Hybrid models a lot more than the Monday to Friday 9 to 5 of pre-pandemic times. We went through a phase we called at the time, “The Great Resignation” where people who had re-evaluated what they wanted out of their careers and their work-life balances took the call to return to the office as their cue to see if the grass was greener somewhere else, and for the last year or so at just about every Executive Platforms event we have talked about the war for talent and the struggle to attract, develop, and retain the workforce you need to succeed in the New Normal of Work.
No one has perfectly defined exactly what the New Normal of Work consists of yet, because we are still in the process of inventing it.
One thing that most people do agree on is that while the pandemic was incredibly disruptive, it did not so much spark business transformations as it dramatically accelerated ideas and trends that were already working their way towards the mainstream. Remote work, distributed workforces, and investment in digitization, automation, visibility, and traceability were all well-known concepts before COVID-19 made them necessities. If two years of working that way has pushed them into normalcy faster than they would have otherwise, that is more about a change in tempo to the march of progress rather than a clean break from the past.
With that said, there is another idea that was picking up steam before the pandemic hit that has not seen the same widespread acceptance as some of the other trends I just mentioned, probably because very few businesses were forced to do this during the crisis. That is not to say its time may not be coming sooner than we think as we all try to find our way through this rapidly evolving business landscape.
Is the four-day workweek the next addition to the New Normal of Work?
Let’s start with the obvious. The majority of people would prefer to have a three-day weekend every week, and businesses that can make that a standard part of their employment package are going to have a distinct edge in the War for Talent that will pull more and more companies into matching that offer, and that’s probably how the four-day workweek will find general acceptance and adoption, if that does ever happen.
It’s also worth saying study after study on the early adaptors of this trend shows there is no loss of productivity from their workforce. People working four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour days get just as much done, and in many cases their productivity actually improves because they are more committed to a job with a more equal work-life balance and the employers who have made that possible. Happy workers are always going to outperform unhappy workers. They also tend to leave their job and go looking for a better option somewhere else when they know they are already working for an employer of choice.
The advantages of a four-day workweek don’t stop there. Companies that are prepared to split their workforces into four days on and three days off do not necessarily have to have everyone have the same days on and off as has traditionally been done in organizations that observe a Monday to Friday work cycle and close for business on weekends. Businesses making the transition to a four-day workweek could stagger half the team to work, say, Tuesday to Friday, and the other half in that example Friday to Monday, and now the company is running without interruption with the workforce overlapping one day a week to coordinate on what they are doing collectively while each side can carry on for the other in the other three days of their shortened workweek. Disrupting the traditional rhythm of ‘getting back to work’ on Monday, having productivity peak on a Wednesday, and viewing Friday afternoon as ‘almost the weekend’ may produce incredible dividends over time for companies prepared to shake things up.
Probably the most obvious con is this is going to cause enormous disruption for years and years. Unless governments get involved, the move to a four-day workweek is going to happen unevenly, and the knock-on effect of people working different days and times is going to impact people in ways big and small. We have built the modern world around the majority of working people doing something close to a Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, and scrambling that is going to take a very long time to find a new intuitive normal settle onto the zeitgeist.
Let’s walk through a couple of examples of what we are talking about when we contemplate the impact a four-day workweek is going to have on people’s lives. First off, what happens to school calendars? Right now, children are at school when parents are at work. If we change when parents start and stop their workdays and which days they have on and off, all of that impacts when schools need to be open, but the change isn’t happening to everyone at once, nor is everyone going to change from one broadly speaking universal standard to another broadly speaking universal standard. We have already explored the possibility of companies moving to a seven-day workweek by splitting their staff into overlapping four-day work cycles. Will schools need to be open not just earlier and later, but also on weekends? How long is it going to be before a critical mass of students need their school hours changed, and how long is it going to take for every jurisdiction to get their various teachers unions to agree to that? Or do we keep children going to school as they are now, and create a world where students are often at home when their parents aren’t, are sometimes at school when their parents are home, and no one’s commute to and from work lines up with when their children are going to and from school any longer. What kind of government wins any kind of election with this kind of disruption as part of their platform?
Putting children to one side for a moment, what about actually conducting business? It is hard to talk about increased productivity when all of a sudden the companies you do business with and the customers you serve are all working different days and times. Again, the move to a four-day workweek is not a shift from a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 into some other universal standard. Things are going to go every which way, and we will all have to relearn when we can talk to who.
Right now, you know with a fair degree of confidence when ‘business hours’ are on ‘business days.’ We build systems around when people are working and not working. Banks and lawyers have certain hours that make sense for their clientele. Government offices are open set days and hours to engage with the people who need their services. Companies in the recreational and hospitality space know when they need certain levels of staff because their customers have evenings and weekends free. Salespeople have a good idea of when the decision-makers they need to connect with are going to be available. All of that and so much more is built around an awareness of normal ‘business days’ and ‘business hours,’ and all of that is going to be disrupted and probably never put back together if we move to a three-day weekend where not everyone has the same three days off or the same start and stop times to their working days.
Okay, enough with, “It will be too complicated.” Surely it can all be figured out with time if need be. How about this simple truth? Asking people to do in four days what they used to do in five is going to be stressful. You might be offering them fifty percent more days off, but each of their days on now needs to be at least twenty percent more productive, or the four-day workweek does not make business sense. If the solution to that is to actually reduce the 40-hour workweek, now companies are going to have to put capital into either more headcount and/or more automation to make up the difference, and that starts to become cost prohibitive for the sake of the pros mentioned above.
So, Good Idea or Bad Idea?
One of the things that gets mentioned to me time and time again by people who bring about effective change in their organizations? “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is one of the biggest challenges to overcome, but it also almost always flags one of the biggest opportunities if impactful change can be brought to bear on that sticking point.
The Monday to Friday 9 to 5 is not perfect. It was not handed down to us from on high, fully thought out, rational, and set in stone. It is about a century old, and it’s where —broadly speaking— unions and business owners struck a bargain about how much labor could be expected out of an employee. The Ford Motor Company was one of the first to settle on the 40-hour workweek as a way to ensure steady access to happy and productive employees, and within two decades the US Congress had passed laws making something similar to what Ford had done voluntarily mandatory throughout the United States. By the 1950s, most of the world had similar labor laws in place, and that’s the way it has been for seventy years now.
That doesn’t mean that’s the way it will always be.
Maybe moving everyone over to a four-day workweek will be too hard. It will certainly require active government legislation in not just the United States but most of the world to shift everyone into the new model, which does not seem likely to happen any time soon.
With that said, there are already companies and even industries experimenting with the four-day workweek —the Tech sector, as one prominent example — and if they find it gives them a competitive advantage, they will stick with it and let the chips fall where they may in terms of clashing with the normal rhythms of ‘business hours’ and ‘business days.’
The benefits of a four-day workweek are enticing. The drawbacks of it are daunting. To my mind that suggests there will be individual cases where for some businesses the pros are going to outweigh the cons, and in other companies the status quo will continue to reign, and then there will be friction between the two sides of the ongoing argument where people are more interested in working for some employers than others, and in the end we will have a mixed bag that doesn’t offer all the benefits of a four-day workweek to everyone while also diluting some of the advantages we have all come to take as a given from having most white collar work done in the same 40-hour window every week globally for the last seven decades.
However it unfolds over time, things are changing, and that change will be factored into what we end up calling ‘The New Normal of Work,’ whenever we do arrive at a final definition for that hazy notion that things are different now after the pandemic, but we’re all still figuring out what changed, what will change back, and what comes next.
I look forward to seeing how it all shakes out.
Head of Content & Research
Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.
Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.