With the coronavirus pandemic shutting down much of the world, the future of work is more uncertain than ever. As businesses start to reopen, the question of how people can return to work safely looms large — and for many, it’s likely that workplaces will look quite different for a while. Twitter, for instance, recently announced that even once social-distancing restrictions ease up, it will allow employees to work remotely, while the Los Angeles Times is experimenting with a work-share program to reduce hours and save jobs.
Another proposition being discussed in earnest is the four-day workweek. While it’s largely overlooked in America, the concept isn’t new: Studies have long found that people who work fewer hours for a decent income tend to be happier and more productive. But now, with the coronavirus upending production, it’s looking like an even more attractive and sensible option.
In New Zealand, one of the few countries that can seriously consider reopening because it has reduced the infection rate so effectively, the country’s prime minister, Jacinda Arden, suggested in a Facebook Live video this week that employers could consider implementing four-day workweeks and other flexible work arrangements to ease people back into a healthy work-life balance and boost tourism. She also suggested more public holidays. “I hear lots of people suggesting we should have a four-day workweek,” Arden said. “I’d really encourage people to think about that if you’re an employer and in a position to do so. To think about if that’s something that would work for your workplace, because it certainly would help tourism all around the country.”
Arden is not alone in thinking the four-day week might be an appropriate method for transitioning people back into the workplace. A recent piece in The Atlantic suggests that as social-distancing restrictions ease, reducing workers’ hours while maintaining their salaries could help reduce the number of people who need to be in an office at once, lowering the risk of infection (according to the article, 70 percent of offices in America are open-plan — making operating in accordance with social-distancing mandates a challenge). The author reasons that “to follow [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] recommendations and enforce social distancing in the office without leasing new square footage, companies will have to reduce the number of people in an office by about half.” This strategy is even more relevant for workers who must be physically present to do their jobs — those who clock in to factories, warehouses, farms, and so forth.
But the best reasons to implement the four-day week were apparent before the pandemic and have only grown more urgent over the past few months. Recent data reviewed by 24/7 Wall St. indicates that the average American full-time employee works 41.5 hours a week, while about 11 percent of full-time employees work more than 50 hours per week. That’s a lot of waking hours spent at work, and these numbers don’t take into account the growing faction of misclassified and gig-economy workers, many with multiple jobs and even longer hours. Cut editor Melissa Dahl has previously pointed out a host of benefits associated with a shorter workweek. Studies and common sense suggest that a four-day workweek would result in a healthier, less miserable, more rested, and even more productive workforce. According to Dahl, you’d also “be less of a jerk, probably.” Research conducted on Microsoft workers in Japan last year showed that allowing workers to punch in four days a week and receive their regular five-day paycheck yielded a 40 percent productivity boost. Employers also saved on electricity, because the workspace was closed an extra day. Conscious of balancing newly trimmed schedules, managers also saved time by cutting down the amount of time employees spent in meetings — which, as we all know, do not need to be that long.
Shifting to a four-day workweek necessitates a radical and more egalitarian adjustment in our understanding of work itself, not as drudgery, status, or backbreaking labor but as a contribution you make, after which you get to take a nap and lead the rest of your life. Yes, less work means people are generally less annoyed about doing it and subsequently better at their jobs — but also just means that everyone gets to work less, which is also a good goal.