COVID-19 lockdown could spur adoption of four-day week
When the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic began sweeping the globe at the beginning of this year, countless employees were propelled into working remotely in an effort to suppress the virulent infection rates. Here in the UAE, the federal government issued a remote working policy to protect employees in both the public and private sectors. In a relatively short period, we have had to recreate our own little office spaces at home, host videoconferences, and be productive, while also maintaining a sense of normalcy for our families. However, this also means I am now free to optimally design my work day in a way that boosts my productivity and delivers stellar results, saving time on commuting and other distractions. This got me thinking: Can we devise a policy whereby employees can change their working hours to achieve performance goals, while also complementing their lifestyles?
The concept of a four-day working week is gaining global traction as a way of managing the corporate world during the ongoing pandemic, which has seen travel restrictions, lockdowns, and social distancing measures enforced. Recently, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke to the nation via a Facebook Live video and suggested employers adopt a four-day working week and other flexible working options in an effort to rebuild the economy after the COVID-19 paralysis. With the tourism sector accounting for 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, this policy could help revitalize the economy and boost domestic tourism. Additionally, a new work-life balance could allow employees to engage in activities that boost well-being and give them the time to fulfill important personal commitments, such as caring for family members.
It might sound nonsensical to economists to reduce working hours without cutting salaries, especially after the pandemic has caused economic downturns across the world. However, epidemiologists are still cautioning people on the importance of social distancing measures in order to avoid a second wave of infections and deaths. By allowing employees to work remotely or at most four days a week, we could save lives, in addition to improving other aspects of our lives. A healthy work-life balance can help reduce stress levels and burnout, consequently leading to fewer chronic diseases, more relationship satisfaction, and improved well-being. Fewer hours will also allow primary carers to look after their children or elderly family members.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a consultant in Silicon Valley and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, recently published a book titled “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less — Here’s How.” Pang studied companies in a variety of industries in Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the UK, the US, and Scandinavian countries that have implemented four-day workweeks or six-hour days. He concluded that these companies enjoy higher productivity and are more attractive to world-class talents. They have also adopted effective productivity tools to ensure they are at the top of their game.
In August last year, Microsoft Japan launched the “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer,” which saw its offices closing every Friday that month, giving its 2,300 employees an extra day off each week. The results of this trial concluded that not only were workers happier, but the company saw a 40 percent gain in productivity (measured by sales per employee), electricity costs fell by 23 percent, and employees took fewer days off. A post-trial survey indicated that 92 percent of employees preferred the four-day week.
Fast-casual restaurant chain Shake Shack has shortened managers’ workweeks to four days at 30 percent of its US stores. This flexible arrangement has seen recruitment spike, especially among women. In fact, about two-thirds of job applicants indicated that the shorter workweek was the driving force behind their application. The extra day off particularly helps parents save on childcare costs.
But, aside from extolling the economic merits of a four-day workweek, there is another more essential issue at hand: That is to have the time to live our lives to the fullest. This will enable us to be more experimental, perhaps with adopting new hobbies, traveling, exercising, socializing or trying out novel experiences. This goes hand-in-hand with research conducted by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, who has been studying how elite performers — such as athletes, writers and musicians — have succeeded in various disciplines for more than 30 years. His research points out that elite performers dedicate, on average, four hours every day to deliberate practice, after which they get a lot of rest and leisure time.
By allowing employees to work remotely or at most four days a week, we could save lives, in addition to improving other aspects of our lives.
You can cherry-pick an assortment of luminaries across history who insisted on short and intense bursts of labor, then spent the rest of the day at leisure or rest. For example, author Charles Dickens channeled his daily creative writing energy into five hours between 9am and 2pm, after which he would go out for long walks. British politician Winston Churchill took up painting as a source of joy and respite from his stressful job, lovingly documenting his forays in his book, “Painting as a Pastime.” American philosopher Henry David Thoreau spent two years in the woods on a voyage of self-discovery, after which he penned his famous book “Walden.”
By understanding our multifaceted needs, we can adapt our time at work to boost productivity, while still finding the time to pursue the joyful activities that give our lives so much meaning.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.