COVID-19 set to blunt the momentum of the 4-day work week
I generally write on AI, finance or the intersection of both but from time to time, I dabble with a few ideas I've been thinking about. Today's post is one of such where I'll argue that COVID-19 may have irreversibly destroyed some of the momentum the 4-day work week movement may have garnered over the years.
It is not news that COVID-19 will change the world in many ways even after it is long gone (or contained). For example, climate scientists claim that our skies are clearer, endangered species now thriving and the climate so much better than before COVID-19. In fact, people can now see the Himalayas from India for the very first time in a very long time because of COVID-19.
The argument for all this is that COVID-19 forced a global lockdown, with people staying indoors and not moving around. This meant less cars on the road, less manufacturing, in short, less human activity. If there was any doubt that humans are the cause of global warming, it seems COVID-19 was a well designed experiment to prove it.
However, there is another area COVID-19 is affecting the world that I'll like to talk about today and that is the area of work. Before COVID-19, it was largely believed that the human race, especially in the developed world is overworked. Many argued for several variations of cutting down human labor, one of which is decreasing work days from 5 to 4 - the so called 4-day work week.
There are several variations of the 4-day work week. One example is taking an entire Friday or Monday off the work week entirely without increasing the number of hours worked each day. Hence, for an average 8 hour work day, this essentially meant cutting the working hours per week from 40 to 32 hours/week. Another variation of the 4-day work week was to still maintain the 40 hours/week working week hours by increasing the number of working hours/day. So for example, for the 4-day work week, one would work 10 hours/day to be able to take either a Friday or a Monday off. Several countries even started experimenting with these ideas with some even going a step further by pushing 3-day work weeks. A subtle but key assumption in all the reduced work week movement is that no matter the form it takes, productivity will not be sacrificed because of the reduced work week.
However, to understand how COVID-19 may have negatively impacted this movement, it will help to explore some of the reasons why people started clamoring for reduced work weeks from 5 days in the first place. These reasons will be explored in the following sections together with a discussion on how COVID-19 may have completely obliterated those reasons.
The human workforce is more productive than it has ever been due to technology
Probably the most important argument for the 4-day work week has been the exponential increase in productivity gains by the human workforce in modern times aided by the use of technology. The argument has been that the 5-day work week was a creation for the industrial era where human physical labor was crucial to productivity - the only way to multiply productivity in such a scenario was only to hire more laborers and make them work longer.
However, as humanity and work continued to evolve, technology began to take a more prominent role over physical labor as a factor of productivity. Hence, there was no longer a reason to continue to rely on human labor (and by extension, time) to continue to increase productivity. We could as well decrease human labor and still achieve the same level of productivity by just increasing (or maintaining) the technological factor of production.
If the above argument is valid, then it is also valid that the work-from-home (WFH) phenomena created by COVID-19 is also fulfilling the same purpose. Human productivity has increased dramatically due to the use of office communication and work tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Hence people need not bother about 4-day work weeks but can just work from home for the hours they like, provided they get the job done.
Commuting was becoming a significant part of work
In most modern cities, commuting to work can take up to an hour. That's 2 hours for a single work day and 10 hours for a 5-day work week. The reason for this long commute is that people are living farther away from the city because they can't afford housing within the city itself. For example, the average rent for a 2 BR apartment in New York city is about $3600 per month while the average household income is about $5,333 per month. This means that if workers in New York decide to live in the city, rent will be 67.5% of their income before tax!
Most proponents of the 10 hour/day and 4-day work week have this inefficiency in mind. Basically, rather than spending 2 hours in commute (mostly not doing any work due to privacy and confidentiality reasons) for a giving day, one can rather spend more time at work everyday and cut back on one day of commute.
While the above is a promising idea, COVID-19 has completely obliterated this need. People can now work from home efficiently and may have no need to commute at all to work! Hence, rather than argue for an increase to 10 hour/day 4-day work week, to ease work commuting, COVID-19 has transformed the argument to become, why do we even need a rigid 8 hour work day in the first place? By working from home, people can set their hours, based on deliverables and deadlines, and it can be 10 hours some days and 5 hours on other days.
Flexible workspaces are not only becoming viable but preferred
With the advent of companies like WeWork, flexible workspaces have become a truly viable option to permanent workspaces. Hence, the argument for a reduced work week is that by combining it with flexible work spaces, companies can really save on office leases thereby making the idea accretive in the long run not just for employees but for employers also.
Again, this argument falls flat on its knees when the impacts of COVID-19 and the WFH phenomena is taken into account. By allowing employees to work from home, companies can, theoretically, eliminate (or more practically, minimize) office space entirely!
In summary, COVID-19 in its wake may have hurt or helped the 4-day work week cause, depending on the way you look at it. No one knows for sure the long term impacts of COVID-19 for the work place, but one thing we can take to the bank today is that it will not be the same as pre-COVID-19.
Yours in learning,