In today’s Atlantic I have an essay arguing for reopening businesses on a 4-day week.
The argument has two parts. First, offices have proved to be a significant vector for COVID-19, and more generally, today’s open office plan and decor are as beloved by the virus as they are by interior designers. Like the overconfident scientists in a horror movie, we tried to create spaces that would help ideas incubate and spread, but have created spaces that are great for spreading illnesses.
Shifting to a 4-day week (or expanding operating hours and dividing your workforce into two 6-hour shifts) would let companies reopen at a lower per-person density, which would help dampen down another outbreak.
Second, the work of redesigning workdays helps companies identify inefficiencies in how they normally work, gives workers a great incentive to learn new tools and habits, and helps everyone develop a more flexible, experimental mindset– the kind that you need when you have to figure out how to redesign your office, rethink how you interact with customers, and come up with ways of working that don’t create unnecessary risks.
Of course, reopening this way won’t work for every kind of business, but as I found while researching my book on the 4-day week, while it’s easier to envision an office making this work, there are also nursing homes, automotive garages, call centers, and factories that have successfully done it.
Even as the COVID-19 case count mounts, companies are making plans to reopen. Everyone is keen to get back to work, but epidemiologists caution that a rush back to business as usual could spark a second wave of fatalities, and that businesses need to implement measures to prevent virus transmission between workers and customers. Much of the planning— by real estate companies, architects, and public health officials— revolves around implementing new technology, or renovating workspaces to enforce social distancing: installing temperature checks at building entrances, upgrading ventilation systems, making elevators and doors voice-activated, and making open offices less crowded and virus friendly.
But redesigning space is not the only option for businesses that want to reopen while reducing the risks of that second wave. They can redesign their time, too. Shortening working hours and redesigning workdays, without cutting salaries or productivity, might help many companies get people back to work; and help them prepare for the future, as well.
The logic is simple. About 70% of offices in the United States are open plan, with people working at desks four or five feet wide and thirty inches deep, often surrounded by coworkers on three sides, and sharing common spaces like elevators, hallways, meeting rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. To follow OSHA recommendations and enforce social distancing in the office, companies will have to reduce the number of people in an office by about half.
Shortening working hours might seem counterintuitive for companies that value nimbleness and productivity, and need to clear their balance sheets, but there’s evidence that this can work well, and can help companies recover from crises. In recent years, hundreds of forward-looking companies have pioneered 4-day weeks or 6-hour days, without cutting salaries. These companies are big and small, operate in a variety of industries, and are located all over the world. They use design thinking, a technique developed in Silicon Valley, to bring everyone together around the challenge of doing five days’ work in four: they’re constantly prototyping new tools and practices, rapidly evaluating the results, and making adjustments as they go.
A shorter workweek helps these companies be more productive, not less, more attractive to first-rate talent, and more sustainable places to work. For example, at Pursuit Marketing, a call center is Glasgow Scotland, productivity went up 40% after they implemented a 4-day week, and annual staff turnover has dropped to an unheard-of 4 percent. Korean online delivery startup Woowa Brothers have increased more than tenfold since they cut working hours in 2015; even though they’re a startup they now compete with giants like Samsung for engineering talent. Michelin-starred restaurants like Baumé in Palo Alto have moved to 4-day weeks to reduce stress on staff. Employees are healthier and use fewer sick days because they have more time to exercise, cook better food, and take better care of themselves. Their work-life balance improves, they’re more focused and creative, and less likely to burn out.
A number of companies, particularly retail stores and services, put people on 6-hour shifts but stay open 12 hours a day. For example, the Toyota repair center in Gothenburg, Sweden has operated on this schedule for nearly 20 years. Working a 6-hour day, mechanics are able to work harder and faster, and turnaround time is low: a customer can drop off a car early in the morning and have major repairs finished that evening. The center uses its equipment and bays more intensively, further lowering costs and boosting profits. In Finland during a recession in the late 1990s, the federal government sponsored a program called the “6+6 Plan,” under which municipal offices were open for 12 hours each day and staffed by civil servants on 6-hour shifts. During the two years this program was in effect, public satisfaction with government services went up, and most employees reported improved work-life balance.
Other companies in the shorter-hours movement combine 4-day workweeks and flexible work. At Philadelphia-based software company Wildbit, people take either Monday or Friday off, so the company can provide uninterrupted customer service. At London medical documentation company Synergy Vision, employees rotate weekdays off in order to keep the office open five days a week. In both cases, most customers never realize that staff are on shorter hours.
Companies can adapt these schedules to reopen safely, and serve their customers’ needs. Running two 6-hour shifts would offer customers the convenience of longer hours, and could be attractive to businesses anxious to recover sales lost during the lockdown. Companies that want to maintain an 8-hour day could reopen will less crowded offices if half the staff worked Monday through Thursday, half worked Tuesday through Friday, and everyone worked from home 1-2 days a week (using the remote working skills they’ve developed).
It’s not just schedules that post-lockdown companies can adopt from the shorter-hour movement. Companies working 4-day weeks often place long, meandering meetings with short, small and focused get-togthers. A side benefit to that approach for pandemic times, is fewer people together in poorly-ventilated rooms. And these companies automate repetitive tasks and invest more in online systems, reducing the need for physical contact with customers.
The shadow of an economic crisis might not sound like the time to try something as radical as a shorter workday. But companies usually shorten working hours after a founder burns out, the company’s finances take a hit, or some other crisis signals a need for radical change. Redesigning workdays, learning how to make the most of technology, and developing new habits teaches employees how to work together to find novel solutions to problems, and encourages companies to become more flexible, experimental, and resilient places. These are all qualities companies will need as long as the pandemic lasts, and, again, when the next black swan appears. After they’re back in business, companies will need to look to the future and rethink how they operate. Many will have to renovate their offices: viruses love open offices, with their mix of crowded desks and common space, recirculated air, and glass and plastic surfaces, almost as much as interior designers. Everyone will need to figure out what work must happen face-to-face and what can be done remotely, and come up with ways to serve customers without risking safety. And if they want to large-scale disruption and loss of life during the next pandemic, they need be able to rapidly develop and execute contingency plans. (Israeli scientists recently suggested that a 4-day workweek, followed by a 10-day break, would let businesses operate safely during another COVID-19 outbreak. Companies, as well as schools and public offices, need to be able to adapt to such novel rhythms.)
We shouldn’t ignore the toll the pandemic taken in the United States: the 50,000 lives lost (so far), the economic and systemic inequalities it’s brought to light, the weaknesses in our health care system and economy, or the ugly social Darwinism (“Sacrifice the weak, reopen Tennessee”) that’s been lurking under our nation’s surface. It will take a long time to recover, but if we reopen intelligently, we can better position ourselves to create a better future. Using the reopening to shorten the workweek can help us solve the immediate problems posed by reopening safely, address stubborn problems with overwork and work-life balance, make businesses stronger and more resilient, and help us better prepare for the next outbreak. Shorter hours improve the lives of leaders and employees alike. In today’s world, it could save lives, too.