The 40-hour work week is increasingly obsolete and unnecessary in COVID era, says author

Many people have been working from home since the coronavirus pandemic began in spring. Companies have tightened up their processes and automated tasks that were once done manually, and the option of telecommuting is too irresistible for many people. That’s all according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less — Here's How.” Photo by Lucas Vangeison.

Lots of people are about eight months into working from home, if they’re lucky enough to have jobs that let them do so. Even after a COVID-19 vaccine is available, this new way of working will likely continue. 

“Certainly it’s here to stay, whether you think it’s a good thing or not,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. He’s the author of “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less — Here's How” and founder of the consultancy company Strategy and Rest. 

He says despite all the pandemic-induced disruptions, many individuals and companies have discovered one thing: “Work from home is not some kind of incredibly strange, weird thing that just a couple people can do. It’s available to a lot more people than we ever realized.” 

Pang says there are certainly instances of boosted productivity, as some companies have tightened up their processes and started automating tasks that were once done manually in person. Companies can also save money on upcoming office leases, and the option of telecommuting is too irresistible for many people. 

“There’s also just the fact that if your commute is moving from one end of your sofa to the other end, you're able to come to work a little fresher with a little bit more energy. And so that also helps you be more productive,” Pang says. 

At the same time, lots of workers are homeschooling their kids and/or caring for other family members. “It's definitely the version of work from home that involves doing all these other things simultaneously under adverse conditions. [It] is not really a formula for dramatically increased productivity. So I think it's really notable that there are companies that actually have reported that even in these difficult times.” 

But working and living in the same environment — without an end in sight — can be depressing. Pang says there’s a social benefit of working at offices, and lots of companies will prefer a hybrid arrangement that allows employees to work one or two days at the office and the rest of the days elsewhere. 

Alternatives to the 40-hour work week

Pang says the 40-hour work week became the norm decades ago, but since then, people have made enormous improvements in productivity, largely thanks to technology. 

“The problem is that those productivity gains have been buried under outmoded processes or bad implementations. And so what I'm finding is that lots of companies are discovering ways of moving to four-day weeks or other kinds of shorter work weeks — that let them be as productive while also solving really intractable problems with things like work-life balance and gender equity in the workplace.” 

He continues, “The 40-hour work week isn't wrong. I would say it's just now increasingly obsolete and unnecessary.” 

Pang proposes a 32-hour work week: eight hours a day, four days a week. That means having a three-day weekend, which allows more people to recover. 

“Then finally, I think that for a lot of companies, having people in the office together, at least before the pandemic, for four days meant you still had the social benefits and the creative benefits … even as you gave people more free time for themselves,” he adds. 

Saying goodbye to the Puritan ethic

Being as industrious as possible has long been a part of American culture. 

“We grow up with examples of heroes from business who sleep four hours a day and work enormous hours. And we've got lots of stories from the tech industry or finance of people who become billionaires at [age] 30 by sleeping under their desks,” Pang notes. 

When companies embrace shorter work weeks, he says he sees a real culture change. “I had one founder who said, ‘I no longer look for people who can sleep under their desks. It doesn't impress me that it takes you 12 hours to do a job. What impresses me is someone who can do that same job in six hours and get out of here.’” 

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Credits

Guest:
Alex Pang - author of “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less — Here's How” - @askpang

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Caleigh Wells, Angie Perrin