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What will it look like for shared office spaces to reopen in the wake of COVID closures? No one’s really sure yet.
A good number of us — 54%, according to a recent IBM study — don’t want to return to offices at all, and for those who do, there will be a host of measures and new regulations in place designed to minimize public health risks. Others believe that COVID has already lastingly overhauled the way we work, regardless of whether we’re working out of shared offices or from home. A number of those changes have to do with the work schedules we’ll keep — and these changes aren’t just better for workers and for businesses. They could actually help end the pandemic sooner, too.
Granted, it’s not exactly the four-day work week that advocates for work-life balance have long campaigned for. Instead, researchers from the Weizmann Institute in Israel and the London School of Economics have proposed that as offices reopen, they should do so with a four-day in-office work week, followed by 10 days at home. This is because it typically takes three days for a person infected with COVID-19 to become infectious to others — thus, a “10-4 model” could help reduce inter-office spread.
The pandemic has forcibly removed the illusion of work-life separation — namely, the myth of “disembodied workers,” as one sociologist put it, who are able to devote themselves exclusively to their company over uninterrupted blocks of time and for the better majority of their week’s waking hours. In reality, our lives have always been a lot messier than that, and work and life can’t be so neatly kept in separate boxes. That’s a truth the pandemic has made all-too clear, as working parents hop between Zoom calls and attempts to homeschool children.
Now that we’ve seen this truth in ourselves and others, and we know what it can look like to truly practice flexibility in our daily lives, a complete return to the old, half-hearted version of work-life “balance” is unlikely. We need flexibility to live full, authentic lives. And four-day work weeks — the actual type, in which work is only performed four out of seven days — are an excellent step in that direction.
Well before COVID, plenty of companies had already hopped aboard the four-day train — and reaped the results. At Microsoft Japan last year, just to name one example, employees worked a four-day work week at their five-day pay rate — and productivity went up by 40 percent. Not only that, but Microsoft saved 23% in electricity costs, too. Another consulting firm moved to a four-day work week as part of an experiment put on by the Harvard Business Review. After five months of this routine, the firm’s clients reported better experiences with the team that was working four days a week, compared to the clients of the teams who were working their usual 50-hour weeks.
And, of course, we know the health benefits for workers — both mental and physical — that come from four-day work weeks. Mountains of research indicate that shorter work weeks lead to less stress, less burnout and less depression in workers, as well as better sleep, better immune systems and lower odds of developing heart disease.
COVID has already forced us to think outside the box in ways we previously wouldn’t have seen as possible. It’s time for the widespread implementation of four-day work weeks to be added to this list of new imaginings, too.
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