This crisis is the ideal time to make radical changes to how we work in America.
Even as COVID-19 cases mount, companies are making plans to reopen. Everyone is keen to get back to work, but epidemiologists caution that a rush to recommence business as usual could spark a second wave of fatalities, and that employers need to implement measures to prevent virus transmission among workers, or between workers and customers. Much of the planning—by real-estate companies, architects, and public-health officials—revolves around implementing new technology, or renovating spaces 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 lowering the risk of a second wave. They can redesign their time, too. Reducing hours, without cutting salaries, might help many companies speed up the return to normalcy, and help them prepare for the future as well.
The logic is simple. About 70 percent of offices in the United States are open plan, with people working at desks four or five feet wide and 30 inches deep, often surrounded by co-workers 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 without leasing new square footage, companies will have to reduce the number of people in an office by about half.
Shortening work hours might seem counterintuitive for companies that value nimbleness and productivity, and that need to clear their balance sheets, but a large body of evidence suggests that this approach pays dividends. In recent years, hundreds of forward-looking companies have pioneered four-day weeks or six-hour days, without cutting salaries. These companies are big and small, operate in a variety of industries, and are all over the world. They bring everyone together around the challenge of doing five days’ work in four. They’re continually prototyping new tools and practices, and rapidly evaluating the results. They make adjustments as they go.
A shorter workweek helps these companies be more productive, not less, and more attractive to first-rate talent. At Pursuit Marketing, a call center in Glasgow, Scotland, productivity went up 40 percent after the company implemented a four-day week, and annual staff turnover has dropped to an unheard-of 2 percent. Revenues at Woowa Brothers, a South Korean online delivery company, have increased more than tenfold since it cut working hours in 2015; even though it’s a start-up, it now competes with giants like Samsung for engineering talent. Michelin-starred restaurants like Baumé, in Palo Alto, California, have moved to four-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 they’re less likely to burn out.
A number of companies, particularly retail stores and services, put people on six-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. With a six-hour shift, mechanics are able to work harder and faster, then hand off unfinished tasks, so that a customer can drop off a car early in the morning and have major repairs finished that evening.
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 six-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 four-day workweeks and flexible schedules. At the Philadelphia-based software company Wildbit, people take either Monday or Friday off, so the company can provide uninterrupted customer service. At the London medical-documentation company Synergy Vision, employees rotate weekdays off to keep the office open five days a week.
Companies can adapt these techniques to both reopen safely and serve their customers’ needs. Running two six-hour shifts would offer customers the convenience of longer hours, and could be attractive to businesses eager to recover sales lost during the lockdown. Companies that want to maintain an eight-hour day could reopen with less-crowded offices if half the staff worked Monday through Thursday, half worked Tuesday through Friday, and everyone worked from home one to two days a week (using the remote-working skills they’ve developed).
Businesses seeking to reopen their offices can borrow more than schedules from the innovative companies in the shorter-hours movement. Companies that move to four-day weeks often replace long, meandering meetings with short, small, and focused get-togethers. A side benefit to that approach, for pandemic times, is fewer people together in poorly ventilated rooms. And these companies automate many repetitive tasks and invest more in online systems, reducing the need for physical contact with customers.
An economic crisis might not sound like the right time to try something radical. But companies usually shorten hours after a founder burns out, the company’s finances take a hit, or some other problem signals a need for change. The challenge of adjusting to a new schedule makes employees more flexible in other areas, and encourages companies to become more nimble. That’s a quality companies will need as long as the pandemic lasts, and when the next black swan appears.
The pandemic has already taken more than 55,000 lives in the United States, brought economic and systemic inequalities to light, exposed weaknesses in our health-care system and economy, and dredged up 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 create a better future. In this spirit, shortening the workweek can help us solve the immediate problems posed by the coronavirus, and mitigate stubborn problems with overwork and work-life balance. Shorter hours improve the lives of leaders and employees alike. In today’s world, it could save lives, too.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is the author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How and founder of the consulting company Strategy and Rest.