As the coronavirus crisis forces more companies to participate in a massive experiment in remote working, it raises questions about how work might change when the health crisis passes, and if companies may be more open to alternative forms of working in the future—including not just letting employees work from home but allowing new variations in schedules, such as the four-day workweek.
“Often when companies don’t allow remote work, it has to do with not necessarily a lack of trust in the person, it’s a lack of trust in the process,” says Amy Balliett, CEO of Killer Visual Strategies, a creative services firm that shifted to a four-day workweek in 2017 and also allows remote work. “They’re so used to a very specific traditional process of work that they’re worried about what happens when that process shifts. I think what we’re about to see, as all of these companies that have been set in that tradition for so long are forced out of it, that there’s going to be a new level of trust and a new willingness to consider alternatives to the traditional going to the office nine-to-five.”
I think what we’re about to see, as all of these companies that have been set in that tradition for so long are forced out of it, that there’s going to be a new level of trust and a new willingness to consider alternatives to the traditional going to the office nine-to-five.”
Companies that have adopted four-day workweeks have found, repeatedly, that productivity doesn’t decline even when people work fewer hours. Perpetual Guardian, a statutory trust company based in New Zealand, first tested a four-day workweek after seeing research that suggested that employees were only truly productive for around three hours a day; by giving workers a day off each week, the CEO theorized that employees might be more focused on their jobs when they were in the office. It worked. Researchers from two New Zealand universities found that after the first trial, employees were happier with their jobs and productivity hadn’t dropped. The company made the policy permanent.
When Microsoft tested a shorter workweek in its office in Japan—making every Friday a paid holiday for the office’s 2,300 workers last August—it found that productivity actually increased by around 40%. The company asked employees to chat online to avoid meetings, and to limit any physical meetings to half an hour and no more than five employees.
Other companies have adopted variations on a shorter week. A Swedish company, for example, still has a five-day workweek but limits each day to six working hours. The company sees it as a way to improve work-life balance, since employees can now more easily run errands after work and spend time with their families each day. The company says that it hasn’t seen productivity decline. It’s more proof of the obvious: Coming into an office and being present for eight hours, or more, doesn’t mean that someone is effectively working all of that time, and many of the standard parts of office life, including meetings, are either unnecessary or could be replaced with a five-minute chat on Slack.
As coronavirus quarantines force more people with office jobs work from home, especially management and executives, some of this reality may become more clear. For employees without children, being at home and away from the distractions of coworkers may allow for better focus, so it’s easier to finish the same amount of work more quickly. For those with children whose schools have closed, the challenge of fitting in work will be enormous—but also could prove that 40-hour weeks (or 50-hour or 60-hour weeks) at the office aren’t necessary.
For different companies, some variations in scheduling make more sense than others. Killer Visual Strategies, for example, bills by the hour as a design firm and needed to keep employees on a 40-hour schedule, but decided to change to four 10-hour days. Balliett says that in the past, her employees would come in energetic on Mondays, but their productivity would decline through the week; now, with three days off, they’re able to get more work done. Some employees have Mondays off, and others have Fridays off, so clients can always reach someone. During the current crisis, some employees are now also taking turns covering for one worker who needed to temporarily move to half-time hours to fit in childcare for a toddler who would normally be at preschool.
As economic damage grows, a four-day workweek might help some companies survive, says Andrew Barnes, the CEO of Perpetual Guardian. “Many businesses are considering or implementing reduced hours and reducing pay as well,” he says. “The methodology of the four-day week trial is to have a safe, renewed focus on productivity. The process eliminates much of the unproductive busyness whilst reinforcing trust between employers and employees. Businesses who do this will have a better chance of surviving this temporary crisis and maintaining employment for their people.”
Still some companies may be unwilling to break away from the traditional mold. “We’re about to see a negative economic impact across the board, in my opinion,” says Balliett. “I think those companies are going to be very happy to get back to business as usual. And I think that as they’re trying to make sense of the economic impact, they might blame lack of productivity from working from home.”
But Barnes believes that this period of remote work will lead to longer-term changes. “The coronavirus crisis, which is enforcing the use of remote working and ways of engaging, will demonstrate to many businesses that employees can be trusted to deliver productivity without being in the workplace,” he says. “This is an essential building block to how we have a reduced-hours workplace once this trouble has blown over.”