Hybrid and remote work aren’t the only major changes for the workforce. Some workers are finding when they work has evolved, too – and many employees are loving it.
Since the pandemic, where people do their jobs has changed but so, too, has when.
Now, workers who previously had five-day-a-week, nine-to-five jobs are in some cases finding themselves with new options for ordering their workdays and workweeks. Overall, these approaches aim to give workers the kind of flexibility that feeds into greater well being, whether that’s more accommodations for personal commitments, or shorter time on the clock entirely.
Of course, not every employer is jumping on these emerging trends; plenty of sectors are strictly adhering to pre-pandemic structures. Still, an increasing number of companies are experimenting with shaking up things, especially in an era where worker attrition is a concern.
Here’s what we know about how workdays are changing, and what their continued evolution might look like.
Shorter workweeks could be on the table…
Work has been exhausting for a while, but as workdays lengthened for many employees during the pandemic, their mental health and work-life balance suffered. One answer to the call for better well being support has been the trial – and in some cases, implementation – of the four-day workweek.
This idea is not new to the pandemic era, yet it’s gained renewed traction amid Covid-19. High-profile trials began in 2021 across countries including Iceland and Spain. And now that the results are rolling in, some employers have been so pleased by the outcomes around productivity that they’re making the new set-up permanent. Particularly notable was the wide scale four-day working week trial in the UK, in which 3,300 employees across 73 companies received one paid day off per week through the course of the trial. Halfway through the experiment, 86% of the companies surveyed said they’d keep the four-day policy going.
Along with enjoying happier workforces, many businesses have also been able to recruit and retain workers. At the same time, their employees are saving on expenses like commuting and childcare. (On a larger scale, four-day workweeks could be more sustainable, too, cutting carbon emissions.)
Amid all the positive developments, however, there’s still much to figure out about what a four-day workweek will look like in practice, at least at company level. Some firms are keeping 40-hour weeks, instead condensing the workload into four days, which is lengthening employees’ daily time on the clock. Other companies have decided to chop working hours to between 32 to 36. And although some data shows a third of businesses expect a four-day workweek reality in the next decade, not every company is keen on paying workers the same amount for fewer hours.
…and shorter workdays, too
The four-day workweek trials in which workers condensed their hours to 32 per week have given credence to the idea that many employees can work 100% productively in less time. As a result, some experts are floating the proposal to shorten workdays, too. For instance, some believe six hours could be the sweet spot – a workweek that could subsequently shrink even more.
Research has shown workers are just as productive and engaged in fewer hours – if not more. Indeed, Norway and Denmark have workweeks shorter than 40 hours, and are respectively the second- and seventh-most productive countries in the world.
It makes sense, says Adam Grant, a professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, that a condensed schedule would result in increased productivity. “It’s a benefit for prioritization,” he says. “When you have less time, you start to focus on the things that really matter. That might mean managers assigning less busywork, and it might mean fewer frivolous meetings.”
This proposal is more nascent than the four-day workweek – and certainly not nearly as widespread in interest. But as companies continue to toy with new models and see maintained productivity in shorter time periods, it’s an approach that could become a reality for some employees, or at least moved further into the trial stage. In particular, this concept could be an easier sell for businesses for which shortened workweeks aren’t viable, yet want to explore new formats.
Not every workday follows a linear path
Knowledge workers have largely been expected to work in eight-hour blocks, the proverbial nine-to-five. Of course, with the rise of remote- and hybrid-structures, not every worker is doing this at an office – yet they’re still largely working consecutive hours, no matter where their desk is.
However, in response to pandemic-era complications, such as childcare shortages, and general desire for expanded flexibility, some companies have evolved to allow for non-linear workdays. This is the idea that workers can choose their hours to better accommodate their lifestyles. Non-linear workers still generally have the majority of their hours cross over with their colleagues and bosses, yet tend to shape close-focus work as they wish.
For many, this means breaking up their work into concentrated chunks of time, enabling them to get down to business when they’re most productive, or when they don’t have other commitments. Think a morning person getting a jump on the day when their brain is sharpest, then ending their workday earlier; or a parent taking the time to attend their child’s after-school activity in exchange for taking on some evening hours.
Aaron De Smet, senior partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company, says the benefits of non-linear workdays are reciprocal. “For employees, huge workloads no longer mean staying in the office past 1900 and missing their kid’s soccer match. Now, they can have more of a personal life and get their work done. For employers, the work being done is often creative, innovative and emotional – best achieved in flexible, optimized settings.”
This trend is not wholly new – some workers did have extreme flexibility, particularly those already with remote companies. But it was not common. Now, these non-linear workdays are becoming more attainable. And while everyone can benefit from shaping their own days, non-linear structures are particularly helpful for parents and caregivers, for whom care demands can be ad-hoc or incompatible with traditional structures.Asynchronous working has opened new possibilities While some global companies have their employees spread across time zones, the bulk of employers have mostly had their workers synchronized
on working hours (at least in large part). However, the pandemic-era proliferation of asynchronous working has enabled an extreme shift in possibilities.
Simply, asynchronous communication enables employees to work entirely on their time, without missing a beat of productivity, even if they don’t overlap with colleagues at all. Employees can not only work autonomously, but they also explore different working locations that may not have been available pre-pandemic. For many, asynchronous work expands the options of where they can live, while for others it creates the opportunity for digital nomadism. This shift is a boon for recruiters, too, who are increasingly feeling the pressure to cater to candidates who demand flexibility.
Along with amenable bosses, the development of new collaborative software and documentation practices have largely facilitated asynchronous work. It’s part of the pandemic’s acceleration of digital innovation, which is continuing to evolve. The caveat: asynchronous work is really only possible for some types of workers and organizations that can logistically get work done on different shifts – think all-remote companies or the tech sector.
As with every pandemic-induced change to work, it remains to be seen what will stick. But among the workplace changes evolving daily, there’s been a slow – but steady – move towards more firms trialing these new options. Businesses are, of course, being careful about the decisions they take – and we can’t ignore that plenty are digging their heels in against new approaches.
Yet, it’s likely more companies will dip their toes into the water of new models, however gingerly, which may begin to permanently shift the workday as we know it.