In 1956, then-Vice President of the United States Richard Nixon foretold a seismic shift in the U.S. 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. In its place would be 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 work-week hasn’t really caught on in the States in the 66 years since his prediction.
But 24 months mired in the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work. Employees need flexibility more than ever, and employers are responding. In fact, experts say the upheaval of the past two years will lead many companies to think about implementing not only shorter workweeks, but a variety of non-traditional work arrangements on a more long-term basis.
Better balance, improved efficiency
Some data suggest that a growing number of organizations are giving some real thought to shaking up the workweek in the way that Nixon envisioned nearly seven decades ago.
ZipRecruiter figures from July 2020, for example, showed the share of company job postings offering four-day work schedules 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.
There seems to be an appetite for abbreviated schedules among the workforce as well. A 2020 survey from the Workforce Institute at Kronos found 40% of workers saying they would prefer a four-day workweek.
Companies have certainly experimented with the four-day work model in the past. And some have had great success.
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 eight-hour days a week throughout the summer of 2019.
More recently, COVID-19 has driven other organizations to go the same route. Consider Berlin, Germany-based Awin.
When the pandemic began, Awin “started running flat-out, as its business with online retailers soared, putting intense pressure on the staff,” Bloomberg reported.
Having already sent its 1,000 employees home to work through the crisis, Awin also instructed workers to call it a day at lunchtime each Friday, to prolong their weekends and recharge their batteries.
The company soon saw a spike in sales, employee engagement and client satisfaction, according to Bloomberg. In response, Awin announced in January 2021 that all employees could work a four-day week. “We firmly believe that happy, engaged and well-balanced employees produce much better work,” Awin CEO Adam Ross told Bloomberg. “[They] find ways to work smarter, and they’re just as productive.”
Indeed, interest in the four-day workweek has historically been fueled largely by “a need for more efficiency and more opportunities for workers to rejuvenate,” said Scott Cawood, CEO of WorldatWork.
The COVID-19 era has only underscored the need for employees to rest and recharge, and 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.”
When burnout runs rampant
Since the start of 2017, Seattle-based design and marketing firm Killer Visual Strategies’ 30 employees have worked four 10-hour days, with the option of taking either Monday or Friday off each week.
CEO Amy Balliett implemented the condensed schedule in hopes of giving a boost to employees’ flagging energy and productivity levels.
“Burnout runs rampant in creative work, as it requires hours upon hours of detail work in front of a digital screen to hit a consistent level of quality for clients,” Balliett told #evolve. “I found that my team would start work on Mondays fully refreshed after the weekend and ready to take on any challenge.”
Typically, her employees’ productivity over eight hours would peak on Mondays, she said. By mid-week, however, “they would only be able to produce about 75% of the work in the same eight- hour period. By Fridays, [they were turning out] only about 50% of the work.”
The reduced output wasn’t because they were working less or not as hard, Balliett said.
“This was simply due to burnout. It became clear that a four-day workweek would return at least the same productivity while giving my team the opportunity to truly unwind over a three-day weekend.” Not only did the shortened schedule help workers return to their usual levels of production, but Killer Visual Strategies has been producing 25% more with the same size staff, Balliett said.
“Instead of going from 100% productivity on a Monday down to 50% on a Friday, the four-day workweek leads to roughly 100% productivity in days one and two, and 80% productivity in days three and four.”
Truly unplugging from work in just two days is a tough task, she added. With the benefit of an extended weekend, “you get to make more space for your life outside of work and relax the stressors that work tends to cause. This release of tension gives employees a far better work-life balance and keeps everyone more focused and excited during work hours.”
That said, feedback has been somewhat mixed, in terms of how the shorter schedule has affected employees’ energy and sense of personal and professional equilibrium.
“While the creative content producers on my team — designers, animators, developers, for example — have found it to be hugely beneficial, the client-facing members of my team have found it challenging at times,” Balliett said. “This is because clients sometimes need to talk on [client-facing team members’] days off, which makes it hard to have a consistent four-day work week.”
To overcome this hurdle, project managers who interact with clients receive extra paid time off to help ensure they are getting an equal benefit as the rest of the team.
Balliett urges other organizations considering four-day schedules to keep such potential challenges in mind before taking the leap.
“It’s important to allow employees to participate in the four-day workweek if it benefits them, while still being able to adjust for a five-day workweek for the team members that would prefer five eight-hour workdays instead.”
Meeting demand for flexible work
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. For example, Ashley Whillans, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, anticipates more organizations moving toward what she calls a 3-2-2 workweek — 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 support the notion that many employers are embracing more flexible work options.
For instance, one recent survey found close to three-quarters of companies (72%) saying they intend to offer employees the option to work remotely at least a few days a week or month even after COVID-19 recedes.
Some employees will crave this type of 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. For example, 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,” Ulrich added.
“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, Cawood said.
“Part of this will be trying to realign 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 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.”