The Financial Times recently launched a new series on “Rebooting the Workplace,” which consists of essays by various invited experts on different aspects of the future of work in a post-COVID (or still-ongoing-COVID) era.

As part of the series, I explain “How better routines create happier workers.”

Of course I go on to talk about the 4-day week, but it’s not just a gloss on Shorter and my subsequent work on shorter hours; assignments like these offer a chance to take a new look at familiar material, and to try to extract something new from it.

How better routines create happier workers
The pandemic has given companies the chance to introduce new ways of working that reduce stress and boost productivity

Is there a word less likely to quicken the blood or stir the soul than “routine”? Routines are dull, familiar, mechanical, uninspiring. We get “trapped” in them at work, and “break out” of them when we go on holiday. If routines were people, they would be the Jane Austen characters Mary Bennet or Charles Musgrove: dependable but dull.

But as the pandemic has shown us, routines are essential if we are to lead enjoyable lives, be productive and be fulfilled. As we return to something more akin to normal, we have a chance to create new routines, not just return to old ones.

For many of us, pre-pandemic life was shaped by busy work schedules and deadlines, school calendars, spouses’ commitments, pets’ needs, holidays and so on. Keeping all this running was essential for having anything resembling work-life balance. But too often it did not work. Even at the best of times, a huge amount of labour is required to patch the gaps between school, childcare, work and home, while also playing the role of ideal worker. No wonder burnout and stress were at epidemic levels before the lockdown, or that more than 90 per cent of workers want the option to continue working from home, even though many struggle with aspects of remote work.

For our own good, we should not go back to business as usual. So what makes for better routines?

Some companies have successfully moved to four-day weeks or six-hour days, without cutting salaries, productivity or profitability. They can teach us a lot about routines, work-life balance and the future of work. Before the pandemic, I studied a number of these companies, located in a variety of industries around the world. Since then, I have followed the movement towards shorter working hours as it has spread to local governments, primary schools, homeschoolers, even medical schools and nursing homes.

Even at the best of times, a huge amount of labour is required to patch the gaps between school, childcare, work and home, while also playing the role of ideal worker

Rebooting the workplace

The first lesson is the most obvious. Routines with shorter hours are good for people and companies. When they work less, people are happier, healthier and better able to juggle competing demands. But they also become less stressed and happier at work, too. This boosts companies’ bottom lines. Their workers are more productive, they have lower staff turnover and they save money on everything from recruiter fees to electricity. Shorter working weeks also help companies address problems relating to burnout, recruitment and retention, and career and business sustainability.

Companies that adopt shorter working hours also demonstrate the value of boundaries between work and non-work time. Shorter workdays are divided into periods of deep focused work and group activities such as lunches and afternoon fika, the scheduled coffee breaks that are an important part of Swedish working life. Separating these two sounds unfriendly, but clearly delineating work and social time actually makes people more productive, and deepens friendships in the office.

They also improve routines by matching the kind of work people do to their changing energy and attention levels through the day. Before the pandemic, most companies treated time like factories did in the industrial revolution: every hour of the day was equal. But knowledge work is sensitive to people’s daily circadian rhythms.

In my previous book, Rest, I explained how successful artists, scientists and writers build daily routines around those rhythms, focusing hard when they have maximum energy and resting when their energy flags. These routines synchronise work to peak performance times, but also let the subconscious continue working on unsolved problems during rest periods — a strategic use of downtime that generates more “a-ha” moments. Many four-day-week companies create similar patterns, blocking out mornings for focused work, holding meetings in the afternoon and leaving email for the end of the day.

We often think that routines are the enemy of creativity but well-designed routines actually support it. The romantic image of artist or writer working in a white heat of inspiration is backwards. As Pablo Picasso put it: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

The companies I study do a good job of creating routines for remote work. We tend to think of “remote work” as completely unmoored and isolated. Instead, we should think of remote work as “remixed work”, a chance to experiment with assemblies of tools, time, and place, and an opportunity to connect colleagues in novel ways.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — companies that successfully introduce shorter working hours recognise their efforts as inherently, intensely social. They do not fit five days’ work into four by asking every individual to optimise their own productivity. They spend lots of energy figuring out how to shorten meetings, fix processes, eliminate bottlenecks and redistribute work. Better collective routines, not individual practices, make shorter hours feasible.

So if you want to make work better, improve work-life balance and accommodate the demand to continue working from home, build better routines. Redesign your company’s daily routines to make the day shorter; improve the boundaries between work and non-work time; match work to rising and falling energy levels; support remote work as well as office work; and emphasise collective, structural solutions rather than putting the burden on individuals. Give routines the respect they deserve. It turns out that life is not much fun without them.