COVID-19

Will the workweek shrink in a post-pandemic world?

Meghan McCarty Carino May 26, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A man works on his laptop while waiting for a train in Tokyo in April. Tuning out work often can help us do our best thinking, one expert says. Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Will the workweek shrink in a post-pandemic world?

Meghan McCarty Carino May 26, 2020
A man works on his laptop while waiting for a train in Tokyo in April. Tuning out work often can help us do our best thinking, one expert says. Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
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The idea of a four-day workweek received a boost from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week, when she encouraged companies to try it out as a way of stimulating domestic tourism over longer weekends. A shortened workweek in a post-COVID-19 world raises some interesting points.

Like pretty much all companies, the social media app Buffer has been struggling with higher than usual stress and anxiety among its employees over the last several months. 

“And instead of saying, ‘No, fight against that, be as productive as you always are’ — that didn’t make sense for us,” the company moved to a four-day workweek at the beginning of May for a monthlong experiment, said Courtney Seiter, human resources head at Buffer.

“Can we meet existing deadlines that have already been set?” she said. “Can we make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves and still meeting this new bar of productivity?”

So far she said they’re meeting those goals and getting good feedback from the team.

Having down time is more important than ever these days, said David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, which consults with companies from Microsoft to Netflix on how to apply neuroscience to work. He said fears about personal health and the economy are overwhelming workers.

“And so we need some recovery time to have time to like organize the rest of our lives and have loving time with family and friends, even if it’s just online,” he said.

Paradoxically, tuning out of work often enables us to do our best thinking, he said, and a shorter workweek could help workers better unplug.

That’s what Amy Balliett found at her Seattle creative agency Killer Visual Strategies when it switched to a shorter week a few years ago. She said the extra bounce of energy her team got after a long weekend more than made up for a lazy Friday.

“So we suddenly get so much more productivity out of less days worked in the week,” she said.

Not that the shift didn’t come with some hitches. She said it took about a year to work out scheduling challenges with clients, staggering off days to make sure someone was available five days a week.

And the current situation, with so many companies forced to become more flexible and results driven, is perfect for experimenting, said Alex Pang, author of the book “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less.”

“All kinds of things that we take for granted about what normal work looks like are actually up for negotiation,” he said.

And shortened workweeks could help those who aren’t able to work remotely. Pang has studied restaurants, nursing homes, car shops and call centers that have all found ways to thrive by working fewer days.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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