Chief Learning Officer: Thinking through COVID-19 and the 4-day week

ELSE London

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the potential impact of COVID-19 (and the next pandemic or global emergency) on the future of work, and particularly whether the 4-day week offers any tools for helping companies better prepare for the next emergency. A first, but by no means last, effort at thinking about this was just published at Chief Learning Officer:

While writing my recent book, “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less — Here’s How,” I heard from many founders who moved their companies to 4-day workweeks because they could see that they would burn out if they continued doing business as usual. They faced a choice between making a risky change that could succeed or fail, or keep doing what they were doing and definitely fail. Others feared that the disruptions of losing key staff, or the costs of constant overwork, would overwhelm their companies.

We’re now all facing the choice that companies that adopted 4-day workweeks confronted: Find new ways of working that reduce systemic risks or go out of business. After studying more than 100 companies that have shortened their working hours, it’s clear to me that the 4-day week helps companies develop the ability to weather crises — and that wider adoption of a 4-day week would help countries better handle the shocks of pandemics and other emergencies.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who’s thinking about this intersection.

ELSE London

Warren Hutchinson, founder of London design consultancy ELSE and one of the people I interviewed at length for my book, has a piece about “Managing Distributed Design Teams and Adjusting to COVID-19:”

As the Founder of a design consultancy, I genuinely believe that there is lots of good to come from the situation that the industry finds itself in, and I hope that how we work will change for the better….

In a typical design consultancy environment, much of how we work is taken for granted. The very physical nature of the studio, the proximity of desks, the areas that encourage natural interaction (i.e. coffee machines, kitchens, sofas), mean that the space is responsible for driving many happy accidents. I’m assuming that you buy into the idea that these soft, unplanned exchanges that take place between people in a team are valuable, but to state the obvious, in a distributed team this vaporises. So you have to do other things to facilitate the ambient and non-task related exchange between people.

Hutchinson makes the point that leaders have functional responsibility for making sure that projects are completed and the trains run on time, but they have the additional responsibility of “optimising the situation to do ‘good work’,” which he defines as

work that people can feel really engaged with and intrinsically motivated by — work that draws on their capabilities and is therefore work they add the most value to through their skills. Creating a more engaging form of distributed work is, in my opinion, how we keep our teams not only mentally well, but performing.

Lots of companies don’t think very much about what constitutes “good work” and how to design for it– or they outsource the question of how you organize work to your built environment and tools, and just kind of let everything coast along. But in order

to excel in a 4-day model, teams need to understand what valuable work looks like, and they need to be able to attack it as individuals and groups. When engaged in work that is driven by purpose, teams have more autonomy and can master their schedule.

In other words, the experience of redesigning the workday gets leaders and employees thinking about what good work is. It puts them in a mindset that prepares them to deal with an era of greater uncertainty and remote flexible work.

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