Thank God it’s Friday!

Or will that be ‘Thank God it’s Thursday’ in a post-COVID world?

Management experts have been talking about a four-day workweek as a way of boosting productivity for years, but now, in a world reeling under the impact of the coronavirus crisis, what once seemed like a fantasy to many might turn into reality. Well, at least a version of it. 

As companies around the world make plans to return to work after lockdowns are lifted, the four-day workweek is emerging as one way to stay relatively safe. It also has the added benefit of cost-cutting because it comes with employees taking a pay cut. 

Reports suggest that Japan’s largest business lobby, the Keidanren, will recommend its member companies shift to a four-day week to reduce the risk of virus infection. It’s still not clear if a shorter week will help stem the spread of the virus, but one argument is that it will mean more online meetings, fewer meetings in confined spaces, and therefore fewer chances of transmitting the virus. 

A group of researchers from the Weizmann Institute in Israel, however, says a shorter week may not be enough to prevent the spread of infection. Their twist on the four-day workweek during the period of increased risk? Taking advantage of the virus’ “latent period”—the three-day period, on average, between the time a person is infected and can infect others. They suggest two groups working in alternating cycles of 14 days—each group to work from the office for four days and from home for the following 10 days.  

The idea of a four-day workweek is still quite novel. A typical working week (the classic “9-to-5” cemented by American legislation in the late 1930s) requires employees to put in eight hours a day, totaling 40 hours a week. But in a “compressed week”, employees work 10 hours a day on four days, thereby not losing the total hours of a standard workweek. 

More radical proponents of the four-day week suggest companies should shift to a system where employees are required to work only 32 hours per week without taking a pay cut. They say it leads to a better work-life balance, higher productivity, and happier employees.

Discussions about the shortened workweek strike at the heart of the philosophy of work itself: What are the tools to measure productivity? What is an employee’s real contribution to a company’s financial bottom-line? How do we make the most of leisure time? 

George Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO—the largest federation of workers’ unions in the US—once said that “the progress towards a shorter workday and a shorter workweek is a history of the labor movement itself”. 

The actual implementation of the four-day workweek has, much like the “internet of things” and “blockchain systems”, not kept pace with the mainstreaming of discussions about the “idea” of it. 

And this slip between the cup and the lip is not new. We can go back 60 years and still see former American president Richard Nixon’s flip-flop on the issue. 

When he was vice-president in 1956, Nixon said he foresaw, in “the not so distant future”, a fuller family life for every American as a result of the four-day week. When he was asked about it four years later, Nixon said that “we can’t have it (the four-day week) now” because “as far as automation is concerned, both because of the practices of business and labor, we do not have the efficiency yet developed to the point that reducing the workweek would not result in a reduction of production”. 

Nixon’s self-contradiction on the matter was not the first and definitely not the last. While many business leaders are intrigued by the idea of the four-day week in theory, it has proved—with good reason—to be challenging to implement. 

Easily the most well-known experiment with the four-day week came from a New Zealand-based estate planning company called Perpetual Guardian. In early 2018, founder Andrew Barnes switched his 240-member team to a shortened week with no pay cuts. 

Researchers at the University of Auckland and the Auckland University of Technology, who studied the two-month trial, found that productivity increased “as there was no drop in the total amount of work done”. 

Employees reported a drop in stress levels and an increase in commitment levels. Barnes has since become the poster boy for the movement, even starting a foundation that funds research and “advances this idea as part of the future of work”. 

The fact is that much of the reporting around the four-day workweek has been devoid of context. It is invariably based on press releases put out by companies that have tried out the system for a few weeks and found percentage point improvements in employee productivity, electricity bills and slightly amorphous parameters like “organizational wellness”. 

If the trials are working and are unequivocally reporting positive results, why aren’t more companies making the switch permanent? 

The answer to that is complicated by a variety of factors. Chief among them, at least from the point of view of executives who are responsible to shareholders and for company bottom-lines, is this: I may be working four days a week but my competitors and clients are still on five. 

Even the kind of organization for which the four-day week is presented as ideal—the nimble high-tech company that is not quite bootstrapping—eventually transmogrifies into the behemoth for which it becomes increasingly expensive to not be “producing” (to appropriate the manufacturing term Nixon used). Especially while its friends and foes in the Valley (whether California’s Silicon or Bengaluru’s Electronics City) are hard at work. 

As for the post-pandemic world? We can already see C-suite executives (and salarymen and women, who would have thought?) chomping at the bit, itching for a time when it is “business as usual”. We know what that means—the truest vision of the four-day workweek will have to wait. 

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