How the Pandemic Can Create a 4 day Work Week

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The notion of a 4 day work week has been discussed for decades. Now, the global lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic is helping to make this idea a more likely possibility. As more people work at home and companies offer flex-time, the idea of reducing the workweek by a day no longer seems so radical. Let's look at what a 4 day work week might look like and how the pandemic is making it more likely.

A Brief History of the Workweek

It's worth remembering that the 5-day workweek was originally considered a radical proposal. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, workers toiled for 6 days with only Sunday for rest. The first 5-day workweek was instituted in 1908. Since then, calls to shave off yet another day from the workweek have been proposed by social reformers and others. Industrialist Henry Ford believed that workers could be more productive working 40 hours than the 60 that was typical in his time. Recently, however, the idea has been gaining momentum. The primary objection to a shorter workweek is the fear that employees won't be able to get as much accomplished. However, there's growing evidence that the opposite is true.

The Popularity of Remote Work and Flex Time

Remote work and flex time are distinct from the 4 day work week but there's some important overlap. Both are a departure from the traditional 40-hour workweek. Both can also be incorporated into shorter work schedules. Several factors have contributed to the rise of remote work and flex time.

  • Digital technology such as video conferencing has made it easy to conduct meetings remotely.
  • Outsourcing has become a popular practice. Businesses are learning that it's often cheaper and more convenient to hire freelancers such as virtual assistants to handle many tasks. Work is often outsourced to independent contractors in other countries.
  • Employees, especially millennials and members of Generation Z, value a healthy work-life balance. For them, flex time and the ability to work at home either part or full time is an appealing benefit.

Employees are increasingly getting accustomed to working at home. Thus, remote work after the pandemic is likely to continue even when it's not mandatory. Of course, when there's no pandemic, there won't be a need to choose between one or the other. Businesses will be able to offer flexibility, allowing for more individual choice. A shorter workweek also fits perfectly into this emerging paradigm.

The Pandemic Has Meant Less Work

COVID-19 came along during a time when virtual meetings and remote work were already getting popular. With the pandemic, however, these trends were accelerated. Businesses no longer had a choice about letting employees work at home. In-person meetings were no longer allowed. Many businesses had to choose between remote work or no work at all. What long-term effects is this having on employees and business owners?

The pandemic has had a severe impact on the entire economy. The effect has been especially detrimental to small businesses. Many businesses were compelled to shut their doors, either temporarily or permanently. A Yale study found that the average number of hours worked in small businesses in the United States dropped by 60% in March 2020 alone. While the long-term effects of the pandemic are still uncertain, there's little doubt that businesses will be forced to reduce work hours for well into the future. The fact is, the pandemic has drastically reduced the demand for work hours across the board. A more widely-embraced 4-hour workweek, while not a panacea for struggling businesses, could allow more employees to keep their jobs.

Practical Reasons to Embrace a 4 Day Workweek

With the pandemic stretching out for so many months, however, people are starting to see that there are viable alternatives to the 40-hour workweek. Here are some reasons that the pandemic has made the 4-day workweek a timely idea.

  • A shorter workweek is a practical idea during a recession and can reduce unemployment. The pandemic has caused severe damage to the economy worldwide. As businesses slowly recover, they won't always need employees to cover 40 hour shifts.
  • A shorter workweek allows for more social distancing, which may be recommended well into the future. Schedules can be staggered so fewer employees are in the workplace at any given time.
  • Less commuting. Fewer employees commuting every day has numerous social benefits including less stress and less impact on the environment.
  • Employees can spend more time with their families. Parents can stay at home to take care of their children for at least one extra day.
  • There's evidence that a shorter workweek actually increases productivity. One of the highest-profile experiments in a 4-hour workweek was introduced by Microsoft in Japan. The outcome was quite successful, with a 40% rise in productivity.

Reducing the Workweek No Longer Seems Farfetched

The real challenge to a more widespread adaption of this practice is more conceptual than practical. To many traditional business owners and managers, working only four days sounds lazy and unproductive even if there's no evidence to support this fear. As noted, studies suggest that employees are actually more productive when they work a shorter week. However, perception counts at least as much as reality.

The pandemic has shown that there are many viable ways to run a business and to serve customers. In addition to more remote work, the early part of 2020 saw a growth in e-commerce, more businesses offering home delivery and contact-free service, and more virtual meetings and events. All of this has helped people see that the traditional way of conducting business isn't the only way.

Will the 4 Day Workweek Become Standard?

Due to several trends and events, including the pandemic, the notion of a shortened workweek seems more reasonable than ever. More companies and even nations are seriously discussing it. there's now a serious debate in Germany about switching to a 4 day workweek as the nation faces higher unemployment. In addition to Microsoft, quite a few other companies are experimenting with a shorter workweek. Here are some examples, some of which began before the pandemic.

As the effects of the pandemic continue, businesses must be more adaptable and creative than ever. A 4 day workweek is one practice that can help all types of businesses and their employees adjust to the realities of the post-pandemic world.

Nicholas Rempel

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