Let’s face it: even if you love your job, chances are you’ve probably daydreamed about doing it a little less. After all, in the past few decades, we’ve seen the rise of countless new technologies that promised to make us more efficient and productive. Yet, many of us are working more hours than ever. But as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, that may be about to change.
Let’s talk about why now is the time to start considering how your team could work less, and how to institute those policies without compromising productivity.
Workers Are Rebelling Against Burnout Culture
The shift toward working less is the result of several combined factors, but their roots are all in a workforce searching for a more balanced life.
Millennials are now the largest generation in the American workforce, and we’re bringing a focus on work-life balance with us. A Harvard Business School survey found that “employee expectations to find balance between personal and work life through flexible work mechanisms” is the number one force business leaders expect will impact their organizations in the next five years.
Young people are looking for greater flexibility at the same time that companies are realizing they must make themselves more appealing to attract top talent. With low unemployment and a robust economy, job seekers can afford to be picky and choose the jobs that offer more vacation time, sick leave policies, and fewer mandatory office hours.
This desire to work less is partly a backlash to years in which overwork was practically a status symbol, typified by Silicon Valley’s paradigm of the “10x” engineer who subsists on Soylent and is never off Slack. This has created a working culture in which employee burnout is rampant.
Burnout comes at a cost, not just to individual employees, but also to companies, in the form of high turnover and lost productivity. But if 2019 was the year we started acknowledging the seriousness of this problem, 2020 will be the year we do something about it, and one solution will be finding ways to work less.
Remote Work is the New Normal
After years of debate over letting employees work remotely full- or part-time, a consensus is finally emerging that remote workers are actually more productive than workforces who spend five days a week at the office. More companies are loosening their policies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2019, 42% of workers with an advanced degree work from home at least some days of the week.
There’s also the issue of employee preference, particularly among younger workers. A 2018 Indeed survey found that 57% of workers feel more productive working from home, and 40% would consider a pay cut if it came with the option to work from home.
It’s important to note that working remotely does not necessarily mean working less. In fact, many remote workers report that they actually put in more hours when they’re not at the office. This is because they’re not wasting time doing things like spending time on their commute, getting distracted by office chit-chat, and more slowly returning to work after an illness. But when implemented properly, remote work gives team members the ability to be flexible, work the hours that make sense for them, and have the freedom to get up and go for a walk or run an errand without fear of judgment.
To be sure, remote work has its tradeoffs. It falls to managers to make sure team members are still participating in a shared culture and having meaningful communications, either through videoconferencing, local meetups, or some other means. For remote work to actually allow team members to work a little less, managers also have to trust them to self-govern. An HBR study concluded that employers “should grant these employees true autonomy and flexibility, rather than trying to micromanage their remote work.” They found that increased autonomy can actually increase productivity.
The Four-Day Workweek is Coming
Monday through Friday has been the standard American workweek for generations, but lately more people are questioning the status quo and rallying around a four-day workweek. In years past, that may have seemed like a pipe dream, but in today’s labor market, it’s a way for companies to stand out in attracting job applicants. According to USA Today, ZipRecruiter job posts mentioning four-day weeks increased 67% in 2019, on top of big jumps in the two years prior.
The four-day-week concept made headlines in 2019, thanks largely to a Microsoft pilot program in Japan, in which worker productivity increased 40% by cutting a day. But the concept is already farther past the experiment phase than one might think. A 2018 Robert Half survey found that 17% of workplaces already offer “compressed work weeks,” and that 66% of employees want them.
There are multiple ways to implement four-day weeks. Some offices have their employees put in four ten-hour days, which can still lead to a net decrease in hours if employees are often working early and late anyway. Other businesses are simply reducing hours altogether, and considering a 32-hour week full-time.
Choosing the right strategy depends on the specific needs of an individual business. A primary challenge is figuring out how to design schedules to ensure there is enough staff present in the office, so a four-day workplace can succeed in a five-day world. Some businesses have had success with letting some employees take Friday off, while others miss Monday. But since most employees carry their work email around on their smartphone, teams can still be reachable in case of emergency.
While the transition to three-day weekends won’t happen overnight, the idea has enough momentum that in 2020, more managers will be able to suggest it without worrying about being laughed out of the room. (We can also remind ourselves that the five-day workweek has only been around since 1908, so it’s a relatively recent invention too.)
Work Less, Work Better
There’s no question that in the United States, we place a high value on work, so even talking about wanting to work less can feel practically heretical. But embracing a future where people work less doesn’t mean giving into laziness, or even that we’re going to get less done. On the contrary, as the studies above have confirmed, having fewer and more flexible hours can be a boon for productivity, morale, and recruiting.
Working less will also require that we commit to making the hours we do spend on the job as valuable as possible by eliminating tedious busywork, fostering deep focus, and making our workplace interactions rich and meaningful. If we can make the most of fewer hours, we can all have more to give to our colleagues, our projects, and ourselves.