Businesses need to use COVID-19 to prepare for future long-term emergencies, because this pandemic won’t be the last. This means more than stockpiling hand sanitizer and face masks or learning how to conduct meetings on Zoom. It means rethinking how we work and how we organize business.
COVID-19 is exposing weaknesses in the global economy and our collective resilience. The Brookings Institution has forecast that the global pandemic could cost the global economy $2.3 trillion. Every sector of the economy is being affected: Schools and universities are going virtual, restaurants and high streets are deserted, sporting events and movie releases are being cancelled, and business travel and conferences have halted.
So far, companies have responded with temporary measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus — in effect, changing how they work to enforce social distancing. Companies are encouraging people to work from home, schools and colleges are moving to online learning, and events that require large audiences or in-person interaction — concerts and Broadway shows, sporting events, business conferences — are being cancelled.
This might not feel like the best time to experiment with dramatically changing how businesses run, but crisis is often what drives successful changes in companies. While writing my recent book, “Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less — Here’s How,” I heard from many founders who moved their companies to 4-day workweeks because they could see that they would burn out if they continued doing business as usual. They faced a choice between making a risky change that could succeed or fail, or keep doing what they were doing and definitely fail. Others feared that the disruptions of losing key staff, or the costs of constant overwork, would overwhelm their companies.
We’re now all facing the choice that companies that adopted 4-day workweeks confronted: Find new ways of working that reduce systemic risks or go out of business. After studying more than 100 companies that have shortened their working hours, it’s clear to me that the 4-day week helps companies develop the ability to weather crises — and that wider adoption of a 4-day week would help countries better handle the shocks of pandemics and other emergencies. Here’s why.
It helps people be healthier. It’s no surprise that people are happier and less prone to burnout when they have more time to recover, but they’re physically healthier too. During their extra day, people have time to work out or go hiking, shop and cook, or visit the doctor. As a result, sick days at companies that switch to 4-day weeks drop dramatically. A shorter workweek increases the ability of older workers to stay in the workforce, which has been shown to improve their mental and physical health.
It gives people more time for care. At London design agency Normally, working a 4-day week gives people more time for “taking care of someone,” co-founder Marei Wollersberger said. “That someone can be yourself and your own health and wellbeing. It can be children or a child, [or] it can be a parent.” Managing director Chris Downs said, “If you summarize what people do with their fifth day? They care.”
It makes for more resilient companies. Companies that move to 4-day weeks are better run, more efficient and more productive because their employees are used to challenging convention and thinking about how to use technology to work better, as well as more accustomed to thinking about contingencies, gaming out responses to problems, and experimenting with new tools and ways of working. During an emergency, that’s exactly the kind of mindset you want.
If you need to go into overdrive and have everyone work 50 percent more, there’s a huge difference between going from 30-hour weeks to 45 hours or 4-day weeks to 5 and going from 40 to 60 hours or 5 days to 6. Edinburgh restaurant Aizle moved to a 4-day week in 2018; Chef-Owner Stuart Ralston likes having more time with his family and the leisure to experiment, but if they have a slow quarter they can lengthen their hours during the Edinburgh Fringe, when the city swells with visitors, or during the holiday season.
They’re better able to respond to long-term changes as well — the sort that a new pandemic represents. In the wake of the financial crisis in 2008, Jinyu Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn outside Tokyo, computerized its booking and bookkeeping, gave its staff tablet computers and smart phones, and moved to a 4-day week; together, these changes let them hire more permanent staff, improve service, develop a new catering and events service, and gave people greater flexibility to take on a variety of roles.
For traditional restaurants and retailers that rely on foot traffic, COVID-19 represents an existential threat. A shorter workweek could help them tighten their normal processes and give them space to develop new capabilities — delivery services and meal prep, for example — that keep their staff employed and paid during emergencies.