Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we work forever. Here’s why it won’t.
By Marc Effron
Everyone is working at home. Thanks, coronavirus. And that has experts predicting that how we work is about to change forever. It won’t happen, and you only need to look at the science behind a recent management fad, the 4-day workweek, to understand why.
The concept of squeezing the traditional five days of work into four 10-hour days has been highlighted in the New York Times and CNBC, and met with fawning commentary on LinkedIn. Management guru Adam Grant advocated for the 4-day workweek at the World Economic Forum at Davos—which, ironically, is a gathering of rich people who worked seven days a week to become successful.
Sign up for the monthly TalentQ Newsletter, an essential roundup of news and insights that will help you make critical talent decisions.
Most of the media’s attention has focused on a 400-person New Zealand company that implemented a 4-day, 30-hour workweek (and now promotes the concept with a new book) and an experiment at IBM Japan where employees were given Fridays off for one month. Uniqlo and Shake Shack have also been lauded for their respective 4-day and 32-hour workweeks.
In true management fad fashion, the shift to a 4-day workweek is reported to have worked perfectly at each company. Hey, imagine that! Employees self-reported being more engaged, while their managers reported that employees’ work output didn’t drop an ounce. IBM even mentioned the added benefit of using less printer paper!
Sounds great, right? Just make sure you consider a few key facts before you rush to squeeze five days of work into four.
Fact #1: The 4-day workweek is a strange reward for bad management
That these companies could easily find enough waste and inefficiency to condense or shorten their weeks isn’t a great sign. It suggests the firms were badly managed if their operations were so sloppy that a few common-sense changes led to radical improvements in efficiency.
For example, the Kiwi-firm Perpetual Guardian and IBM both mentioned they sharply reduced the number and length of meetings to enable their 4-day workweek. That’s wonderful, but increasing efficiency is a basic, ongoing task in any organization. There’s no need to reward it with anything other than a sincere thank you.
Fact #2: The whole week matters
The 16-employee German company Rheingans Digital Enabler adopted a 5-hour workday by having no meeting last more than 15 minutes, not allowing social media or small talk, and prohibiting workers from checking their phones. It’s truly amazing they could find such time savings.
But if you were hired to work 40 hours a week and you were spending 4 hours of it on Facebook, eliminating social media from work shouldn’t mean you get to go home early.
Shouldn’t this newly found time be invested in the jobs everyone is being paid to do? If meetings are now shorter, that’s great. Maybe that time can be spent innovating your products, better understanding your customers, building your capabilities, or improving other efforts that keep your company competitive.
Fact #3: Your competition wants you to skip Fridays
Your rivals are salivating over your 4-day workweek. Remember, there’s always someone willing to work harder than you. They’re happy to call your customers on that fifth day, or they might use it for R&D, team-building, or crafting a new competitor-killing strategy.
You can only compete if you’re on the field, and your 4-day workweek leaves that field empty for your competitors to run up the score with abandon on day five.
Fact #4: Shorter weeks aren’t more productive
The companies lauded for shorter weeks all self-reported happier, less stressed employees and the same amount of productivity. But that means the employees didn’t accomplish anything more; they just did the exact same thing in less time. Their shorter work improved nothing for their customers, suppliers, or shareholders.
Fact #5: It’s not really 4 days, is it?
At Perpetual Guardian, it’s not really a 4-day workweek. The company admits some employees work five shorter days, and there are times when they require everyone to work five days a week.
At Cockroach Labs, a New York City firm cited as an early adopter of the 4-day workweek, salespeople still work a 5-day week. Other firms use the moniker “4-day workweek” figuratively, not literally, as they’re forced to accept the realities of parents with childcare and other messy challenges of scheduling real people.
Fact #6: The 4-day workweek is a first-world problem
The 4-day workweek is a luxury possible only for those who can compress their work in such a tidy fashion.
That nice man who drives your kids’ school bus each day? Which school day would you like him to take off this week? The maid who cleans your hotel room can’t condense five days of making beds into four. Those restaurant workers who used to serve IBM Japan employees on Friday probably aren’t very happy that no one showed up for lunch or dinner.
Inequality grows under a 4-day workweek.
Fact #7: The facts don’t add up
There’s a contingent of academics and consultants who believe work is genuinely a terrible place and we’re all better off when we spend less time there. They write books that explain how work is killing us and claim there’s a global crisis of engagement and longer hours inevitably lead to burnout.
The challenge with their sincerely held beliefs about work? The facts don’t back them up. Employee engagement is near an all-time high (and hasn’t changed much in years), the negative health effects of working long hours are far from proven, and burnout is shown to happen not when you work hard, but when you don’t like your job.
People aren’t dropping dead at work because they have to be there for 5 days. If you’ve died at work, it’s likely because you were hit by a truck or slipped and fell.
Fact #8: Flexibility is what workers really want
Decades of research show flexibility is the number-one benefit that employees desire. They want time to do what they want to do, when they want to do it. They don’t want their employer telling them they have to work a 4-day week or a 7-day week. They want clear goals, an opportunity to grow, and the chance to work hard to get great results. All of that’s possible without resorting to a new management fad.
While the 4-day workweek is the management darling du jour, you can take comfort in knowing it will soon die and be replaced by the next unproven, self-congratulatory fad. Can I interest you in the 3-day workweek?
Marc Effron is the publisher of TalentQ, cofounder of the Talent Management Institute, and the president of The Talent Strategy Group, which helps the world’s largest and most successful corporations create incisive talent strategies and powerful talent-building processes. He’s also the author of 8 Steps to High Performance: Focus on What You Can Change (Ignore the Rest).