In 1956, then-vice president of the United States Richard Nixon foretold a seismic shift in the United States workplace.
His prediction: Over the next 10 years, companies across the land would move away from the customary Monday through Friday, 40-hour work schedule, and adopt a four-day, 32-hour workweek that he said would afford every American a “fuller family life.”
That definitely didn’t happen in the timeframe that Nixon laid out. And the concept of a four-day workweek hasn’t really caught on in the States in the 65 years since.
But 11 months of the coronavirus pandemic might change that. In fact, experts say the upheaval of 2020 will lead many companies to think about implementing not only shorter workweeks, but all types of “non-traditional” work arrangements on a more long-term basis.
ZipRecruiter data from July 2020, for example, showed the share of company job postings offering four-day workweeks was 69 for every 10,000 job postings; up from 40 per every 10,000 in 2019. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of postings offering shortened workweeks was fewer than 18 per 10,000 postings each year, according to ZipRecruiter.
Companies have certainly experimented with the four-day work model in the past. And some have had great success, albeit outside the U.S.
Microsoft Japan, for example, reported a 40% increase in productivity and a 23% drop in electricity costs among the results of allowing employees to work four days a week throughout the summer of 2019.
Historically, interest in the four-day workweek “has largely been fueled by a need for more efficiency and more opportunities for workers to rejuvenate,” said Scott Cawood, president and CEO of WorldatWork.
The COVID-19 era has only underscored the need for employees to rest and recharge, and the need for organizations to become more agile and efficient.
“Thus, [companies are] also pushing for less random or useless meetings, getting faster at decision making, changing or updating outdated processes that just take too much time, all of which hopefully would make people, teams and organizations more effective and thus not have to work five days a week or more,” Cawood said. “But, for the moment, remote working has made many people and organizations more effective, in terms of having more ways to get things done.”
COVID-19 has also adjusted expectations in terms of the amount of work that has to be done during a specific time period, he continued.
Cawood foresees more variations in the day-to-day flexibility of scheduling, “something like more mini-breaks from work each day to do things like help the kids get settled for their remote schooling or take care of personal situations that must now be infused into the workday, because the work is happening in people’s homes. We might see more work done over six days a week now, but less done in the traditional hours.”
In a post-pandemic environment, departures from the typical workweek figure to become more commonplace, whether they come in the form of condensed work schedules or more hybrid models that combine time at the office with remote work.
Ashley Whillans, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, for example, anticipates more organizations moving toward what she calls a 3-2-2 work week — three days in the office, two days working remotely and two days off.
“Employees will demand greater flexibility and organizations will require it,” Whillans recently told LinkedIn. “What this flexibility will look like will vary depending on the sector and geographic location. But, hopefully, if we do this right, gridlock morning commutes will be a thing of the past.”
Data supports the notion that many employers are embracing more flexible work options. A 2020 Mercer survey, for instance, found 83% of more than 750 organizations saying their company is considering flexible working on a greater scale than before the pandemic.
Some employees will crave flexibility a bit more than others, said Dave Ulrich, a professor of business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and co-founder of the RBL Group.
“The global pandemic taught us all about personalization, which means showing more empathy for the person, and also recognizing that people are affected very differently by this pandemic,” said Ulrich, noting that employees with school-age children have had a much different experience during quarantine than, say, a single colleague with no kids or an older co-worker whose children no longer live at home.
COVID-19 has also accelerated acceptance of the idea that work can be done anywhere, anytime and in many ways.
“But work has boundaries that define ‘work,’ which are now likely to be both creating value for a customer and living the values of the company,” added Ulrich. “Combined, personalization and value-based boundaries lead to a new form of where and how work is done. There may be a lot of flexibility in terms of where and when work is done, depending on the individual. This new logic of work may be called hybrid, blended or flexible. I think it’s all part of a newly emerging eco-work system.”
Whatever organizations choose to call flexible and unique work schedules and arrangements, expect to see the integration of work flexibility into workers’ lives continue in the days ahead, said Cawood.
“Part of this will be trying to realign [the] workforce to core operating needs — speed, for example, is more critical than ever — that offer as much overlap for high-profile projects and high levels of customer service.”
For instance, many employees used to have commutes that in some cases added hours on to their workday. Working remotely, these same employees can now adjust their hours to start work at the time they used to leave the house to drive to the office.
“This gives companies more opportunities for teams to collaborate and accomplish work — although digitally — together,” Cawood said. “A lot more options opened up for when and where work can be done, since work is no longer a ‘place.’”
About the Author
Mark McGraw is managing editor of Workspan.