Almost 100 years ago, Henry Ford introduced a 40-hour work week in exchange for the current 48-hour workweek that was in place at the time. Ford believed that only one day off a week did not provide a healthy work-life balance, and that leisure time should be available to “workmen” and not just the higher classes. However, Ford also admitted that the shorter hours in the week also meant they had to expend more effort to increase productivity.
Now, with the explosion of COVID-19, employers have again been forced to rethink how their employees work. Office workers that may not have had the option before, can now telecommute—popularly dubbed as WFH, which stands for “work from home”—and are given less hours to reduce the spread of the virus. Soon after lockdown began, employers began to realize that these options are as effective having employees come into the office, and many companies, such as Twitter, are not switching back to how things were before.
Many have had more leisure time in the past 100 days than at any other time and feel that they cannot return to the 40-hour, 5-day work weeks that they were accustomed to in the past. However, it may seem taboo or maybe even immoral to work less hours than what we are used to. But why?
Thought leaders, such as Bertrand Russell (In Praise of Idleness), have proposed that society has been conditioned to view leisure time as something reserved for the more affluent members of society, in order to keep the working class productive. However, leisure time is necessary for the advancement of society—if not for leisure, we might not have Newton’s laws of physics, or Einstein’s E=mc2. In a similar vein, people need the ability to explore their interests and passions, as that is when ideas blossom the most.
Four-day, 32-hour work weeks have already been proposed in countries such as New Zealand, under the premise of helping increase domestic tourism in the country. The shorter week has also been tested out with promising results: in 2019, Microsoft Japan tried it out for the month of August and saw a 40% increase in sales. Other proposed benefits include having more employees since there are more hours to share, less worries about childcare, and less expenses for employers.
We are accustomed to a 40-hour work week that takes up a bulk of our time and energy. Understandable, working less may feel unnatural, but what if it impacts our lives for the better? It might not be as out of reach as we had once anticipated; and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we are adaptable—we can grow accustomed to staying indoors, and we can adjust our otherwise familiar work processes to be more suitable for social distancing. How would you feel about the switch?