After working from home for many months—dealing with the pandemic, the economic crisis, the election, the Black Lives Matter movement, fires, hurricanes, and everything else—many of us are wondering: What is the future of the workplace?
If there’s a silver lining in this pandemic of 2020, perhaps it’s the chance for companies and employees to try new ways of working— such as widespread remote work, or shorter workdays or workweeks—as strategies to increase workplace diversity, and create a better balance between work and the rest of our lives, and generally improve both workplace productivity and the worker experience.
To explore this idea, the Martell Communications team recently spoke with Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a futurist and a leader in the four-day workweek movement. Pang is the founder of Strategy + Rest, a Silicon Valley consultancy, which helps companies implement the ideas of his books, Shorter and Rest.
Rethinking Where, How And When We Work
Martell: What is the most significant effect of the pandemic in terms of reimagining work?
Pang: The most important, beneficial thing that has come out of the pandemic is a recognition that things we thought were really, really hard to change about the way that companies work turn out—under the right circumstances—to not to be so hard after all. For example, I’ve spoken with a number of managers who absolutely knew that remote work or a four-day workweek could not succeed in their businesses—until they saw their people doing it. It’s a great lesson that we can apply when we’re dealing with other sorts of challenges.
Martell: Alex, how does this moment in time present an opportunity to explore what it means to work?
Pang: To use my area of focus as an example, the thinking around the four-day workweek has gone from this completely crazy idea where people reflexively said, ‘that could never work in my company or my industry’ to one that people are at least willing to consider. In the last six months, given the pandemic, people rapidly moved from believing that work from home was the hill that their company would die on, to watching their people actually make it work! [bctt tweet=”In the last six months, given the pandemic, people rapidly moved from believing that work from home was the hill that their company would die on, to watching their people actually make it work!” username=”MartellComm”]
Some companies that have made the move to the four-day workweek during the pandemic have done so because they recognize that many of their people need more time to deal with also being homeschoolers, babysitters, etc. It has forced them to tighten up meetings and processes, and now they find that employees can do a whole bunch of other things that have actually made them more productive. That means they can make this change without cutting productivity.
By Normalizing Working From Home, What Else Changes?
Martell: We’ve seen a huge rise in the number of people working from home during this pandemic. What are some of the implications of this shift that aren’t getting much focus yet?
Pang: Companies are going to have to figure out their policies around remote and hybrid systems, hammering out a whole bunch of really significant, but fussy, technical details. For example, I think the argument around compensation will change. Many companies are accustomed to arbitraging salaries across geography, and it remains to be seen whether people will put up with that any more.
Martell: Critics of remote work say that there’s a giant loss of serendipity and collaboration when people work at home instead of interacting at an office.
Pang: That’s one of several critiques of remote work, some of which may become obsolete as remote work becomes more common and more permanent. And I think that the cat is out of the bag now.
As for collaboration, the range of tools available has gotten quite a bit better in the last couple of years. They’re much better at replicating online some of the processes that companies have used for in-person product development, brainstorming, etc.
The serendipity argument is a non-trivial one. Think about people meeting and chatting, having random conversations at the cafeteria that lead to Nobel prizes or the next million-dollar idea. No one has a handle on how to replicate that online, because no one really understands how you do those things in person! [bctt tweet=”No one has a handle on how to replicate online the random conversations at the cafeteria that lead to Nobel prizes or the next million-dollar idea, because no one really understands how you do those things in person!” username=”MartellComm”]
Martell: Before COVID, we all had our business personas. We were buttoned up, we had some guardrails around who we were at work. But now, we’re letting it all hang out, right? Children are running in and out of Zoom meetings, dogs are barking, the dirty dishes are still on the table. We’ve even written about how companies should focus on B2P (Business to Person) personas, instead of the traditional B2B or B2C. How does this blurring of the professional and personal aspects of our lives affect the nature of work?
Pang: Think about the volume of effort that people used to have to do to maintain professional identities, or perform as the ideal worker, all while keeping hidden all of that stuff like coordinating home care and childcare. Those various dimensions of our lives have just kind of collapsed on each other during the pandemic. So the old distinctions of ‘work time’ and ‘personal time’ aren’t nearly as rigid now.
Martell: There’s a whole diversity-equity-inclusion piece that could happen through remote work, because now anybody can work from anywhere. To take a local example, you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley or any other particular place to work at a Silicon Valley tech company.
Pang: The idea that learning how to work remotely better as a company enables a diversification of your workforce is something that I haven’t heard much about yet, but it makes sense. And it is something well worth exploring.
The Path Toward Different Ways Of Working
Martell: In your experience—and apart from the pandemic—what makes companies decide to adopt working from home, shorter workweeks, and other seemingly radical ways of working?
Pang: Generally, the story is that founders or others in a company will make changes when it becomes clear that unless they do something different, they’re going to burn out or the company is going to fall apart. I hear lots of stories that start with, ‘I had a health scare’ or ‘half my people quit over the past 12 months’ or ‘we realized that in 18 months, none of us were going to be here if things kept going the way they were.’ It’s generally triggered by either some highly personal issues or very practical problems that they’re trying to solve—issues around retention, recruitment, employee burnout, or work/life balance.
Martell: What is your business case for a four-day workweek or a five-hour workday and the end of 9-5 office hours?
Pang: Overwork is counterproductive for companies. Overworked or burned-out employees are demonstrably less productive than well-rested workers. They’re also less engaged at work, more likely to leave, and even more likely to cut ethical corners or steal from the company. Employee burnout costs the global economy an estimated $300 billion a year in sick days and lost productivity.
The shorter workweek offers a solution to multiple problems—the culture of overwork, gender inequity and the unequal division of economic gains, and the massive indirect costs of burnout and shortened careers. [bctt tweet=”A shorter workweek offers a solution to multiple problems—the culture of overwork, gender inequity and the unequal division of economic gains, and the massive indirect costs of burnout and shortened careers.” username=”MartellComm”]
Martell: What’s a surprise benefit of moving to a four-day workweek?
Pang: Companies that have moved to a four-day workweek talk a lot about how having that extra day makes individuals more creative, because you’ve got more time to go to the art gallery or do professional development stuff or take a pottery class. Those benefits then deliver in often unexpected, but significant, ways.
In my research, I found that shortening the workday can boost a company’s productivity, which I realize sounds pretty counterintuitive. We live in a world in which business operates 24/7, the global economy never stops, and competition is relentless. Yet in the last few years, hundreds of companies in a variety of industries around the world have shortened their workweeks without cutting salaries, lowering productivity, sacrificing quality, or driving away clients.
Martell: Should companies be thinking about restructuring the actual workday?
Pang: I think the dramatic change happening around the pandemic does open up an opportunity for companies to rethink all kinds of stuff about how they work. How they structure the workday itself is just one of a number of dimensions that they can think across. I do think that there are things that are special about moving to a four-day workweek—it forces a whole bunch of organizational and cultural changes that are quite positive.
The fact is that we all have 168 hours per week, and the more of them that we can manage effectively, the more of them that we can get back. People recognize that that’s a good thing. And the benefits of a shorter workweek are really, really clear.
New Approaches to Managing Time
Martell: You have talked about the idea of using routines in managing time. So how might you apply that to the four-day workweek?
Pang: Neuroscientists and sleep experts have found that most of us are at our most alert and active, and have the highest levels of discipline or willpower, basically before lunch. Designing a day that pushes concentrated work to the mornings for everybody sees really significant benefits.
Crafting some rules or norms around behavior interruptions and distraction during various times delivers tremendous benefits. And so routines are great not just for individuals, but for organizations as well.
Martell: How would an organization accommodate the different ways and times of day that people actually are productive?
Pang: Most places see such benefits in coordination that whatever hit they take from circadian mismatch between employees kind of washes out. I think that, arguably, after companies have gone to four-day workweeks and they’re starting to think about how to do a three-day workweek is when they’re going to have to start looking at some kind of circadian customization of schedules to get that next 20% improvement in productivity.
The other thing I would note, though, is that there are benefits to actually working against your circadian rhythm, in particular for night owls. Doing work in the early morning can be more creative than the work you do at night, when you are at your circadian peak. I am someone who is very much a night owl, but I get up at 5am to write when I’m doing serious stuff. And I find that those couple of hours before everybody else is awake are just fantastically productive. There’s a reason that monastic practices begin in the predawn hours.