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Flex Work is No Stretch — It’s Here

Thrive Editorial

Hybrid work, from four-day workweeks to work-from-anywhere, is taking hold. And employees aren’t the only ones embracing it.

The 40-hour workweek used to feel like just another fact of life, as certain as death, taxes and the Seattle Mariners never making it to the playoffs. But since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted just about every aspect of our lives, more companies and workers are taking the opportunity to rethink the way we work — not only where and when to work, but how many hours we should be working in the first place.

Millions of workers resigned from their jobs during the pandemic, many of them citing burnout as the reason. A labor shortage gives some workers more leverage than they’ve had in decades, and companies are looking for innovative ways to attract and keep talent. Top of the list of worker demands? Flexibility.

“Workers have emerged from the pandemic with different expectations around what constitutes a healthy life/work balance,” says Joe O’Connor, CEO of Four-Day Week Global, a nonprofit that helps companies try out a shortened workweek. “Sometimes it takes a big disruptor to dislodge deeply embedded societal and cultural norms. That’s what we are seeing with the traditional five-day working week following the COVID-induced flexible working revolution.”

Globally, almost two thirds of knowledge workers — which includes everyone from programmers and engineers to architects and lawyers — said flexibility was even more important to them than salary, according to a study by the Harvard Business Review. In response, many workplaces now offer hybrid schedules, coming into the office a few days a week and working remotely the rest of the time.

At Google, for example, most employees spend about three days in the office and two days “wherever they work best,” according to a blog post from CEO Sundar Pichai. The company also offers “work-from-anywhere weeks,” up to four per year, to facilitate summer and holiday travel.

When Salesforce surveyed its employees, it found that 60 percent said hybrid work would improve their mental and physical health, and about 16 percent say they’re more productive when they work from home.

Some companies even let certain employees ditch the office altogether. Airbnb, for example, recently announced it would let its employees work permanently from wherever they want, whether it be a home office, their neighborhood THRIVE, or a hammock in Bali.

Even Richard Nixon Thought We’d Have a Four-day Week

And it’s not just remote work that’s on the rise. In business and even in government, there’s a growing movement toward reducing working hours altogether — without reducing pay. Many think it’s an idea whose time has come: Back in the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would make future generations so productive that we’d only have to work about 15 hours a week. Even Richard Nixon thought we’d have a four-day week by now.

O’Connor’s team found that when you give workers a chance to take an extra day off each week provided they still get all their work done, the business becomes more efficient. “Studies show that the average office worker loses more than two hours per day to overly long meetings, distractions and inefficient processes,” says O’Connor. “So the four-day week is already here; it’s just buried under a rubble of time-wasting practices.”

Microsoft saw a 40 percent boost in productivity when it experimented with a four-day week, and crowdfunding platform Kickstarter is also piloting the idea, among many other firms. The country of Iceland put the idea to the test in 2015; for four years, 1 percent of the country’s workers had their workweek reduced from 40 hours to 35 or 36, keeping the same pay. The companies found no decrease in productivity, and workers felt more energized and less stressed. Now the vast majority of Icelandic workers are either already working reduced hours or have the right to ask for them.

Some freelancers are getting in on the act, too. Even when you don’t have a boss to report to, getting enough down time and drawing good boundaries between work and not-work is essential. 

While O’Connor’s group, Four-Day Week, aims to convince companies to voluntarily reduce hours to improve both employee morale and the bottom line, there are also moves to shorten the workweek by law. The California legislature recently considered a bill that would change the legal definition of a full work week from 40 hours to 32, and similar legislation has been proposed on the federal level.

Still, Not Everyone Agrees (Looking at You, Elon)

Not all business leaders are convinced, though. Google’s former HR chief has predicted the trend toward remote and hybrid work won’t last, saying eventually bosses would insist on getting workers back at their desks. And Elon Musk threatened to fire Tesla and Space X workers who don’t report to the office a minimum of 40 hours per week.

But if you ask O’Connor, flexibility is here to stay. “The biggest obstacle to getting companies on board with the four-day work week is their belief that things are fine the way they are,” he says. “Those who think we will turn the clock back to the way things were two years ago are engaged in ‘pie in the sky’ thinking. Entrepreneurs need to consider which is the bigger risk — their company implementing a four-day week or their biggest competitor doing it first?”

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