Covid-19 could improve work forever -- if we make this one change

"Companies and industries are capable of making changes that they thought were impossible."

Covid-19 has upended the world population’s personal and professional lives. The pandemic has wrought devastating changes to the economy as well as a unique opportunity to restructure the way we work.

This week, Strategy explores the life-changing concept of the four-day work week. While the idea of shortening the workweek by an entire day may seem impossible, especially amid Covid-19 related instability, author and strategy consultant, Alex Pang, asserts it is not.

Not only is the four-day workweek within reach, but the working pattern may also be essential to keep workers healthy, productive, and safe through this pandemic and potential future crises. And according to Pang and growing research, it’s good for business, too.

“What Covid-19 makes clear is that companies and industries are capable of making changes that they thought were impossible, and they're capable of doing them faster than they imagined,” Pang tells Inverse. “It is possible to make these kinds of changes and it is imperative that we seize this moment and think hard about what we want normal to be like.”

Pang explains why shortening the workweek is a pivotal strategy to make companies happier and higher performing by giving back employees more control and space to recharge.

“You wouldn't necessarily think of the four-day week as something that's good for companies, but it actually is,” Pang says. That’s because, in order to accommodate a shortened work pattern like a four-day or 30 hour work week, companies have to streamline the way they get things done, he explains. They also have to better support employees to complete tasks more rapidly.

“All of that together makes companies more effective, more efficient, more productive places to work,” Pang says. “It also means that your workforce generally is more collaborative and happier.”

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

Work less, work better— The first barrier to instituting a four-day workweek is overcoming the pervasive myth that longer hours equal higher dedication or performance.

“We have known for more than a century that overwork is actually counterproductive, both for individuals and for companies,” Pang explains. “We are capable of sustaining brief bursts of overwork in order to do more -- think of working during harvest time or during finals.”

But overworking beyond a few-week period spikes fatigue and burnout, and plummets productivity and focus.

On top of this myth, Pang says that since the 1970s, our models of success have been overturned, contributing to longer hours in the office.

“The model of success, in which you start at the bottom, work your way up the ladder, wait your turn, and finally, late in life, you reach the corner office got blown apart in the 70s and 80s and replaced with the Steve Jobs and ‘hedge fund guy’ model,” Pang says.

This modern model of “making it” is where success happens when you are young through massive amounts of labor, he adds. You essentially work hard and you jump to the head of the queue.

“Now we have this idea that success requires titanic amounts of labor early in your life, and it's kind of an all or nothing game,” Pang says.

"Overwork is actually counterproductive."

This early pressure drives people to devote unsustainable levels of energy to their work. Add in technology, and long hours inside or outside of the office are possible.

“The fact that we can carry our offices around with us in our pockets everywhere has turned the idea that we can be always on into the expectation that we will be always on and always accessible,” Pang says.

“Work isn't something that you can pick up and put down. It has become this fine dust that's spread across our entire day.”

Is your job making you sick? — This cycle of working too hard for too long has contributed to skyrocketing rates of chronic stress, heart disease, and mental health disorders.

In the book, Dying for a Paycheck, Stanford Business School professor John Pfeffer describes this worrying link between work-related stress and negative health costs.

Referencing the book, Pang says chronic overwork and burnout are now as big a problem in American public health as smoking, when you consider the costs of rises in chronic disease, depression, and loss of potential income linked to burnout.

“This is costly in America in a way that we don't often recognize, and that it deserves to be taken more seriously and dealt with more systemically,” Pang says.

Enter the four-day work week, a working schedule that’s been around for over 80 years.

Research shows four-day workweeks help people bring more focus and attention to producing higher quality work, make fewer mistakes, and tend to be happier and more loyal to their companies. In 2019, Microsoft implemented a four-day workweek at a subsidiary in Japan boosting employees' performance by 40 percent.

“With a four-day workweek, people are happier at work and happier outside work,” Pang says. They also tend to be healthier, he adds, with more time to exercise and cook, he adds.

Current 5-day, 40 hour work weeks contribute to “a self evidently capricious, arbitrary system,” Pang says, that deserves to be replaced with something better.

“A four-day week is a really good way to break that down and to rebuild it without huge cost, without huge disruption, and with benefits both for employees and employers, and the world of work generally.”

So if we know it’s possible, and might even make companies more profitable, why aren’t more companies onboard?

Well, according to Pang, hundreds of companies from creative agencies to factories to restaurants are experimenting with shortening the workweek. Pang predicts the four-day workweek is likely to become a widespread reality for workers around the globe, sooner rather than later.

“The four-day workweek is likely to become a reality and is more likely to happen sooner rather than later,” Pang says. Within the next couple of years that it will be seen,

In the next few years, along with flexible work policies like remote work, the four-day workweek will become one way that companies can organize themselves, Pang says.

“Owners and managers will have to explain why they don't choose this.”

If your company isn’t on board with a four-day workweek, Pang advises:

  • Establishing boundaries between work and home life: “It is essential for your own sanity, it is also essential for the recovery necessary to have to actually work well when you are working,” he says. That means silencing email notifications after hours or unplugging from devices when you can.
  • Recognize that you are not alone: “The real solutions to these challenges are actually collective solutions and systemic ones, not just individual ones,” Pang says. “You are not the only person who's facing these issues around work life balance and burnout.”
  • Take up an engaging hobby: Learning a language, playing a sport, or cooking can all help you become distracted from work and feel a sense of mastery and control.

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