We’re never going back to the office – at least not five days a week.
That’s the contention of Anne Helen Petersen, the author of “Out of Office: Unlocking the Power and Potential of Hybrid Work.”
“You can either try to figure out flex arrangements now or you can battle your employees for the next 5 to 10 years and then pay a consultant a lot of money to help you figure out what you should have started figuring out five to 10 years ago,” she told me in the latest episode of my podcast “Downside Up.”
Petersen believes that the Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally reoriented our relationship with work in ways that companies are only now starting to grasp in full.
“[People] don’t wanna be forced to go back into the office for two days a week and have that not be a time when their coworkers are there. And so they’re just going back into this ghost office and it feels totally arbitrary to be answering emails from an office instead of answering emails from the comfort of your home,” she told me.
Though it feels like the five-day, 40-hour work week has always been with us, it’s actually a relatively new invention.
Even into the 20th century, for example, it was considered normal to work on Saturdays – in addition to the usual five days a week. (The Massachusetts Bay Colony had a 10-hour minimum work day!)
As far back as 1866, Congress considered mandating a 40-hour work week, but the legislation stalled. In 1926, Henry Ford instituted a 40-hour work week for his employees, believing that was the optimal amount of time for someone to work in a week. Congress eventually mandated that employers pay workers overtime if they put in more than 44 hours a week in 1938. The law was amended in 1940, reducing the work week to a 40-hour maximum.
But the 40-hour work week was – and is – routinely violated by salaried employees (and their bosses) who believe that working more is working better. “Oftentimes, working those incredibly long hours is a sign of dedication, devotion … a sign that you should be promoted,” said Petersen. “As much as people talk about the sanctity of the 40-hour work week, they don’t talk about the fact that we’ve already violated it.”
The pandemic – in which bosses forced their employees to stay at home for fear of spreading the virus – has, according to Petersen and other experts on work, fundamentally altered the way we think about the office and the workweek more generally.
“If you think about it, your contract with your employee is not just buying time,” Charlotte Lockhart, an advocate for a four-day work week, told me. “You’re buying them doing something with that time – a productive outcome. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a manufacturer, in hospitality, work in health care or work in an office, what they’re looking at is how do we define productivity within our business.”
In other words: Work smarter, not harder.
The question before bosses now is whether they want to push to reinstitute that employees come to the office five days a week because that’s how they were doing it pre-pandemic or whether they want to actively explore the possibility of flex time or even a four-day week to better fit the lives of their workers.
“It’s not that that means everyone needs to be fully remote,” explained Petersen. “I think oftentimes this conversation becomes very polarized or binary in terms of [whether] everyone should always be in the office or everyone should always be in the home. Most people want a compromise that’s somewhere in between there.”