How Shorter Work Weeks Could Become a Reality After COVID-19

How Shorter Work Weeks Could Become a Reality After COVID-19 feature image

COVID-19 created circumstances where many businesses were forced to be flexible or shut down entirely. When no childcare or in-person school was available for workers during government-prompted shutdowns, most businesses knew better than to crack down harshly on parents who still had caregiving duties they couldn't avoid during the workday. Instead, many businesses created an unprecedented level of flexibility, allowing dual-income families, for instance, to shift what time of day or which days of the week when they completed their hours.

The strong recommendation that workers work from home when possible also changed how businesses viewed workplace flexibility. Rather than seeing work from home as a logistical barrier that they weren't willing to work around, they saw it as the best, most efficient way to keep workers safe while still creating value for the company.

Shorter work weeks have remained less common than the 5-day work week because of, among other things, distrust among leaders and worries about logistical hassle, despite strong research that many companies grow productivity and job satisfaction when they choose a four day work week. Here are some of the reasons why these hurdles were lowered by the experiences that businesses had in 2020.

Productivity Targets, COVID-19 Shutdowns, and Caregiving Responsibilities

Not everyone thrived in the work-from-home, somewhat-more-flexible schedule of 2020, but many managers were impressed to discover that their team members were managing to efficiently allocate their work, get things done on time and up to standards, all while handling an impressive array of stressors in their personal lives or caregiving responsibilities for children. Companies who had previously assumed that giving team members greater autonomy and less time in the office total would tank productivity saw that they were wrong.

Even after schools are fully open and it becomes an expectation that team members will not have any caregiving duties during their work shifts, the lessons of this time period will linger with managers and other workplace leadership. The fact that having to get everything done in the time available was a powerful motivator is part of why research shows that workers with 4 day work weeks actually produce as much or more than their 5 day a week counterparts. When there are constraints on our time, we work smarter, not just harder, to get everything done.

Offering Flexibility Has Proven Its Track Record

Some companies, realizing that the whole world was experiencing more health anxiety and isolation during COVID-19, made it their mission to remove barriers and make it easier for team members to get their work done. From making in-office work optional (to keep density of people working in the office low) to letting people log their hours any time as long as they got done each week, workplaces tried out unprecedented flexibility and got the chance to create a track record. Of course, managers had to modify their structures, figuring out how to do remote meetings well and making sure they knew if a team member was struggling, but in so many cases, the results were strong because team members were grateful for the flexibility. When we like a perk at work, we work hard to convince leadership to keep that perk. After COVID-19, workers everywhere will be able to point to their performance during a flexible work schedule and say, "see? I personally benefited and the company benefitted too."

Time With Family Has Proven Valuable to Many Workers

Shorter work weeks have also traditionally been rare partly because some workers say to themselves, "More time at home? What would I do with that?" Even very busy people have been so conditioned to assume that all day every day is for being at work. They couldn't imagine what a slower pace of life might look like.

Now, not everyone was happy to be at home with whoever they lived with during the pandemic. However, quite a lot of people came to the realization that spending time with roommates or family members slowed them down and reduced their stress. When workplaces were in a lull as the government made decisions about how to proceed, people noticed that they could focus on other things that mattered to them. Workers who previously didn't bat an eye at 50 or 60 hour work weeks may now see a shorter work week as a benefit they could enjoy and take advantage of in the futures.

As a result of this increased value for shorter work weeks, employers are more likely to see the logistical hurdles as worthwhile for the gains in employee retention and satisfaction.

The 2020 Experiment Prompts Further Experimentation

Not every company gave their teams flexibility specifically in the length of the workweek during 2020. Instead, they may have experimented with using more online tools, telecommuting for business meetings, or other strategies that created surprising savings while still allowing the job to get done. Companies whose 'new normal' includes some forms of workplace flexibility will have a harder time turning down other forms of experimentation going forward, especially with so much evidence that shorter work weeks are good for both the team members and the bottom line at the company.

Trying an experiment with shorter work weeks is likely to be met with enthusiasm among workers, especially when they are designed in a simple, elegant way that doesn't decrease customer experience or make life difficult for payroll or other parts of the company. When you handle issues of what to do when you have a question for someone on their day off and other small concerns, it's easier than you think to implement a pilot program and see what happens. Yes, there are companies that find that four day work weeks clash with their culture, but far more find that the motivation factor, the job satisfaction, and the resulting recruiting power are major benefits.

Whether 2021 brings more of the same challenges that 2020 brought or results in even more upheaval, companies that are willing to re-evaluate the status quo will be able to confront future challenges with better results.

Nicholas Rempel