There's been a growing chorus of voices for rethinking the workweek for decades. Now, with the onset of COVID-19, many are trying to rebalance schedules and navigate a new kind of work from home — WFHWK (work from home with kids). This new reality makes the old workweek feel especially arbitrary and out of sync with what organizations, teams, and individuals need to be successful.
We nerd out a lot at Range about evolving the way we work, and recently have been especially focused on what a new approach to a workweek would look like. We thought it could be useful to share what that different approach could be, along with a few tactics you might consider trying.
In the US, the five-day workweek was popularized by Henry Ford back in 1926 and became increasingly popular during the Great Depression as it was seen to counter unemployment (fewer hours for each person meant more work hours to go around). It became law by 1940, and through the 60’s more and more countries started to adopt a five-day workweek to align with international markets.
Today, despite technology having profoundly impacted how we work, when we ask why we use a century-old model to define the workweek, the answer seems to be “well, because.” Questions such as “is working 9 AM to 5 PM the optimum interval for productivity each day?” Or “does working five days in a row lead to better well being?” are often largely ignored. Much of what we have in place now is due to societal inertia. And when we evaluate a workweek as a technology in and of itself, more and more research points to it being out of date.
From a management perspective, the idea that employees are working because they are at work might be comforting, but it’s shortsighted. Organizations that use this as a basis for limiting policies around work flexibility create low-trust work environments.
High-trust companies, on the other hand, see flexibility as a virtue. Because they trust their employees, their employees feel empowered to deliver on expectations in a way that feels natural to them. Organizations that embrace high-trust management practices, including flexible work hours, reap the benefits. According to Paul J. Zak, a neuroeconomist, “compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.”
The global pandemic has forced organizations to be more flexible and support working from home. It’s also presented them with an opportunity to etch flexibility into their DNA and to heighten the trust they have with their employees. Trust is key to making remote work a success. Managing a workforce that's spread out over many locations takes more than learning new ways to communicate and coordinate — it means shifting the style of management. Rethinking the workweek could help them rewire their culture, making it more resilient and better equipped to adapt and thrive in the future.
Let’s consider focus. Tony Schwartz, the author of Be Excellent at Anything, told Harvard Business Review that people work best in intense 90-minute bursts followed by periods of recovery. Basecamp has employees work four-day, 32-hour weeks for half of the year. Jason Fried, the CEO, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, and noted that “[w]hen you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time. Better work gets done in four days than in five.”
Some people may find four longer days easier, others may prefer six or even seven short days. And days will likely need to be split up into multiple disjointed work blocks.
At Range, parents on our team are looking at designing blocks of time based on a codified red, yellow, and green system in their calendars.
Green is when you focus on the kids and have a limited ability to respond. Yellow is when you and the kids are both working but you may need to step away to help them out (yesterday I had a pretty good work block while my daughter did coloring pages). Red is for video calls and deep work.
Flexible workweeks would also help to address well-being concerns that are on the rise as people navigate working from home. As we talk to our customers, while some have always worked on remote teams and have their work-life practice down, the newly-remote teams often find it hard to disengage from work.
Disconnecting from work helps people be more productive. There are many ways to do this when working remotely. In the beginning, replacing a commute with a morning walk is a great way to fill the space you once used for one activity with another.
Over time, the contours of the standard eight-hour workday loosen, making it easier for people to disconnect from work in the right way. They free up more time than they might have for things like exercise or time with family and friends and adjust their schedule so they can be more present and more productive. We call this finding your groove.
Getting into a groove — an approach to your work that suits you best — helps balance performance and well being. To help our team, we put together personal remote handbooks. We share them with the entire team and update them as necessary — usually weekly. It contains contact information, current priorities, preferred working hours, meeting times, what's going on at home, and personal development goals. Check out the Team Remote Handbook template we use.
Anyone can pull up a handbook and check on someone's availability or what they might be balancing at home. They may also come across a recommendation for a good read or a touching movie. It cuts down on the number of 1:1s and interruptions, and provides useful context.
This new approach doesn't limit people to a five-day workweek or nine-to-five gig. It doesn't require people to work more, but it helps them work better. Some people will work a bit early in the morning, get exercise or help their kids map out their day, and then be available for collaboration during set times. They may handle some part of work on a weekend, and mix and match the days depending on the balance that works.
As we all take a close look at how we can support each other during these uniquely challenging times, we want to encourage everyone to rethink the workweek. As more organizations offer employees a flexible workweek not just during times of disruption, but as a standard benefit, they’ll take a major step in helping teams succeed in the modern working world.