A new study from Iceland confirms that a shorter workweek improves productivity.
- A study in Icelandic government offices again shows the benefits of a shorter workweek.
- Productivity rose enough to ensure that all services were still provided as needed.
- Because of the study's success, 86 percent of Icelanders now or soon will have the right to a shorter workweek.
In 1886, the standard workweek in the United States consisted of six, ten-hour days. On May 4th of that year, a riot took place in Chicago after an unknown person threw a bomb at officers trying to break up a peaceful rally in favor of the then-radical notion of an eight-hour work day. While it took a few more decades to get there, today, the eight-hour workday seems quite natural.
Today, the discussion centers around the possibility of a further cut in the workweek, from five days to four days. Joining the pile of studies on this topic is a new report out of Iceland documenting the recent success of one of the largest experiments to date on a reduced workweek. Carried out by the Icelandic government and published by Autonomy, a UK think tank, the report suggests that a substantial portion of the economy could switch over to a short workweek tomorrow with little in the way of negative effects.
An experiment in Iceland
Icelandic workers spend more hours per year in the office than do those of several other European nations and can be less productive during that time than some of those other workers. The experiment was designed in hopes of meeting the work-life balance of Icelanders, improving productivity in the workplace, and providing a route for bringing hours in line with their neighbors.
The first of the trials was carried out by Reykjavík's city government between 2014 and 2019 at a few government offices and service centers. The trials eventually expanded to include more than 2,500 workers at "playschools, city maintenance facilities, care-homes for people with various disabilities and special-needs, and beyond."
Workers in the experimental locations saw their hours reduced from 40 to 36 or 35 hours per week with no loss in pay. The exact way these hours were organized was determined by the individual workplace involved. Many opted to split the hours among four days, while others worked a five-day week with one workday being shorter.
A second trial was carried out by the Icelandic national government at about the same time, starting in 2017 and ending in 2021. This involved 17 workplaces across the country.
Iceland, home of the four-day workweek
Both studies produced similar results. The reduction in hours caused either no change or an increase in productivity and improvements in the reported work-life balance of employees. While many employees were concerned that more work would be crammed into less time, the data show that the workers were actually working less.
Improvements in efficiency were found in every workplace. Employees worked faster. Time-wasting events, like unnecessary meetings, were curtailed. Routines were changed to be more efficient, and shifts and schedules were restructured. Overtime was needed in some offices, but only sparingly.
Importantly, services were provided at the same levels as they were before the reduction in work hours. The well-being of workers dramatically improved, with many reporting increased time with their families, lower stress levels, and a better ability to balance their work and home lives.
The two trials included more than 1 percent of Iceland's workforce. Thanks to its success, 86 percent of Icelandic workers are on contracts that either reduce their workweek or grant them the right to reduce their workweek in the future.
Work smarter, not harder
The idea of a four-day workweek or reduced hours with no cut in pay is being discussed and tested in many places. The six-hour day has been tried in Sweden to great fanfare. Offices in New Zealand saw dramatic gains in productivity after switching to a shorter week. Microsoft tried a four-day week in Japan and got similar results.
Indeed, the results from Iceland are typical. Anna Coote, principal fellow at the New Economics Foundation, explained in an email to BigThink how the report was well in line with previous studies:
"It confirms other evidence that reduced working time is popular with employees, provided there is no loss of pay. It also confirms the importance of combating low pay at the same time as moving towards shorter working hours. A four-day week (or its equivalent in hours) must benefit lower income groups, not just those on higher pay. No one should have to work long hours just to keep a roof over their head and food on the table."
A four-day workweek is coming
In the book The Case for a Four Day Week, Coote and her co-authors examine the impact of a four-day workweek on society. They foresee a number of changes for society at large.
For example, it is still the case that women do more housework than men. However, the Iceland experiments showed that men in the study performed a larger share of household duties due to spending less time at the office. A four-day week could also benefit the environment through wasting less energy and fewer commutes.
In an email to Big Think, Coote reminds us that a "new normal" may be coming:
"What is 'normal' is not natural or heaven sent — it is constructed over time by human-made structures and systems. Yesterday's 'normal' was a 10-hour day. Working people won the right to an eight hour day through a protracted struggle over many years of social and economic change. Tomorrow's 'normal' is likely to be a 4-day week or its equivalent in hours across a week, month, year or lifetime."
If the four-day workweek indeed becomes the norm, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Iceland.
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."
Say hello to your new colleague, the Workplace Environment Architect.
As some countries begin to pull out of pandemic-induced lockdown, and the corporate engines of "return to the office" begin to whir, an open question hangs: What kind of jobs will people return to following months of work-from-home exile in "Remotopia"?
Will the online "big-bang" of the 2020s (when everything that could go online did go online) accelerate digitally enabled jobs? And which jobs will top the post-pandemic jobs list, in the next, new future of work?
Over the past several years, the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work has published a series of reports on the Jobs of the Future that propose new roles which will emerge over the next decade and be central to businesses and employees everywhere. Because of the virus, time has compressed, resulting in a handful of these jobs of the future becoming 'jobs of the now'.
And the top jobs are...
The following is a top-ten summary of professions emerging in the wake of the pandemic.
1. Work from Home Facilitator – Prior to 2020, it's estimated that less than 5% of companies had remote policies. Now, with the full post-pandemic expectation that remote work remains the norm, companies want to apply lessons learned to optimize the work-from-home experience. Far from being a futuristic job of tomorrow, WFH facilitators have become undeniable "jobs of the now."
2. Fitness Commitment Counsellor – We cringe at the extra kilos, pounds and stones packed-on during months of pandemic-induced lockdown. To remedy the situation, predictive and preventative approaches to counselling, paired with digital wearables like Apple Watches and FitBit dashboards couple human accountability to maintaining fitness. And per the Cognizant Jobs of the Future (CJoF) Index, it's a role that grew 28.7% in Q1 '21.
3. Smart Home Design Manager – A lasting lesson of the virus for many will be that "everyone's home is their castle." The rise of smart home design managers will boom as homes are built – or retrofitted – with dedicated home office spaces, replete with routers in the right place, soundproofing, separate voice-driven entrances, and even Gorilla Glass wall screens.
4. XR Immersion Counsellor – As Zoom-intensive "Remotopia" inexorably gives way to 3D realms of virtual space, XR immersion counselors will work with technical artists and software engineering, training and workforce collaboration leads to massively scale the rollout of best-in-class AR and VR for learn-by-doing workforce training and collaboration (using platforms like Strivr) or apprenticeships (such as Mursion, for example) to get employees productive – fast.
5. Workplace Environment Architect – Everything from health screenings to "elevator commutes" in post-pandemic office architecture is about to go through a major rethink. The importance of employee well-being, and how human-centered design of a company's real estate holdings can impact it, are now crucial to the future of work.
6. Algorithm Bias Auditor – "All online, all the time" lifestyles for work and leisure accelerated the competitive advantage derived from algorithms by digital firms everywhere. But from Brussels to Washington, given the increasing statutory scrutiny on data, it's a near certainty that when it comes to how they're built, verification through audits will help ensure the future workforce is also the fair workforce.
7. Data Detective – Openings for data scientists remain the fastest growing job in the tech-heavy "Algorithms, Automation and AI" family of the CJoF Index since its inception, and continued to see 42% growth in Q1 '21. Given this high demand, they're also scarce; that's where data detectives help bridge the gap to get companies to investigate the mysteries in big data.
8. Cyber Calamity Forecaster – Aside from COVID-19, it's arguable that the other, big catastrophe of 2020 was the continued onslaught of both massive state-sponsored cyberattacks like Solar Winds, down to individual bad actors promulgating ransomware exploits. The ability to forecast events like these is critical to forewarn of culture events. The CJoF Index bears this out: growth in openings for Cyber Calamity Forecasters grew 28% in Q1 '21.
9. Tidewater Architect – The global challenge of climate change and sea level rise will remain an omnipresent challenge. Tidewater architects will work with nature – not against it – in some of the biggest civil engineering projects of the 21st century. And per the CJoF Index, openings for these jobs grew 37% in Q1 '21.
10. Human-Machine Teaming Manager – Pandemic or no, the unceasing rise of robots in the workplace continues unabated. Human-Machine Teaming Managers will operate at the intersection of people and robots and create seamless collaborations. Already, openings for forerunner roles like robotics technicians grew 50% in the Q1 '21 CJoF Index.
While it is impossible to predict exactly how global labour markets will rebound in the wake of the virus, leaders can and should use the future of work as a prism for their own organizations to plan ahead. If there's one lesson the pandemic has taught us, it's to anticipate change.
Leaders need to see how the future of work will play out in real time through leading indicators that reveal how the jobs market is adapting in the face of technology-based innovation and disruption. The CJoF Index uses real data on US job openings to see the imagined possibilities of jobs of the future starting to emerge.
By combining strategic planning resources like "21 Jobs of the Future" and the CJoF Index, it's possible to get a look into the not-too-distant future to see which roles are the top contenders in the post-COVID future.
2021 will be a reset moment, a period where more examples of the theoretical become "jobs-made-real". Before they can be built, however, jobs of the future have to be dreamed - and this requires vision and some imagination.
Many workers moved home on the promise or hope that they'd be able to keep working remotely at least some of the time after the pandemic ended.
A good example of this is a recent op-ed written by the CEO of a Washington, D.C., magazine that suggested workers could lose benefits like health care if they insist on continuing to work remotely as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. The staff reacted by refusing to publish for a day.
While the CEO later apologized, she isn't alone in appearing to bungle the transition back to the office after over a year in which tens of millions of employees were forced to work from home. A recent survey of full-time corporate or government employees found that two-thirds say their employers either have not communicated a post-pandemic office strategy or have only vaguely done so.
As workforce scholars, we are interested in teasing out how workers are dealing with this situation. Our recent research found that this failure to communicate clearly is hurting morale, culture and retention.
We first began investigating workers' pandemic experiences in July 2020 as shelter-in-place orders shuttered offices and remote work was widespread. At the time, we wanted to know how workers were using their newfound freedom to potentially work virtually from anywhere.
We analyzed a dataset that a business and technology newsletter attained from surveying its 585,000 active readers. It asked them whether they planned to relocate during the next six months and to share their story about why and where from and to.
After a review, we had just under 3,000 responses, including 1,361 people who were planning to relocate or had recently done so. We systematically coded these responses to understand their motives and, based on distances moved, the degree of ongoing remote-work policy they would likely need.
We found that a segment of these employees would require a full remote-work arrangement based on the distance moved from their office, and another portion would face a longer commute. Woven throughout this was the explicit or implicit expectation of some degree of ongoing remote work among many of the workers who moved during the pandemic.
In other words, many of these workers were moving on the assumption – or promise – that they'd be able to keep working remotely at least some of the time after the pandemic ended. Or they seemed willing to quit if their employer didn't oblige.
One of authors explains the research.
We wanted to see how these expectations were being met as the pandemic started to wind down in March 2021. So we searched online communities in Reddit to see what workers were saying. One forum proved particularly useful. A member asked, “Has your employer made remote work permanent yet or is it still in the air?" and went on to share his own experience. This post generated 101 responses with a good amount of detail on what their respective individual companies were doing.
While this qualitative data is only a small sample that is not necessarily representative of the U.S. population at large, these posts allowed us to delve into a richer understanding of how workers feel, which a simple stat can't provide.
We found a disconnect between workers and management that starts with but goes beyond the issue of the remote-work policy itself. Broadly speaking, we found three recurring themes in these anonymous posts.
1. Broken remote-work promises
Others have also found that people are taking advantage of pandemic-related remote work to relocate to a city at a distance large enough that it would require partial or full-time remote work after people return to the office.
A recent survey by consulting firm PwC found that almost a quarter of workers were considering or planning to move more than 50 miles from one of their employer's main offices. The survey also found 12% have already made such a move during the pandemic without getting a new job.
Our early findings suggested some workers would quit their current job rather than give up their new location if required by their employer, and we saw this actually start to occur in March.
One worker planned a move from Phoenix to Tulsa with her fiancé to get a bigger place with cheaper rent after her company went remote. She later had to leave her job for the move, even though “they told me they would allow me to work from home, then said never mind about it."
Another worker indicated the promise to work remotely was only implicit, but he still had his hopes up when leaders “gassed us up for months saying we'd likely be able to keep working from home and come in occasionally" and then changed their minds and demanded employees return to the office once vaccinated.
2. Confused remote-work policies
Another constant refrain we read in the worker comments was disappointment in their company's remote-work policy – or lack thereof.
Whether workers said they were staying remote for now, returning to the office or still unsure, we found that nearly a quarter of the people in our sample said their leaders were not giving them meaningful explanations of what was driving the policy. Even worse, the explanations sometimes felt confusing or insulting.
One worker complained that the manager “wanted butts in seats because we couldn't be trusted to [work from home] even though we'd been doing it since last March," adding: “I'm giving my notice on Monday."
Another, whose company issued a two-week timeline for all to return to the office, griped: “Our leadership felt people weren't as productive at home. While as a company we've hit most of our goals for the year. … Makes no sense."
After a long period of office shutterings, it stands to reason workers would need time to readjust to office life, a point expressed in recent survey results. Employers that quickly flip the switch in calling workers back and do so with poor clarifying rationale risk appearing tone-deaf.
It suggests a lack of trust in productivity at a time when many workers report putting in more effort than ever and being strained by the increased digital intensity of their job – that is, the growing number of online meetings and chats.
And even when companies said they wouldn't require a return to the office, workers still faulted them for their motives, which many employees described as financially motivated.
“We are going hybrid," one worker wrote. “I personally don't think the company is doing it for us. … I think they realized how efficient and how much money they are saving."
Only a small minority of workers in our sample said their company asked for input on what employees actually want from a future remote work policy. Given that leaders are rightly concerned about company culture, we believe they are missing a key opportunity to engage with workers on the issue and show their policy rationales aren't only about dollars and cents.
3. Corporate culture 'BS'
A company's culture is essentially its values and beliefs shared among its members. That's harder to foster when everyone is working remotely.
That's likely why corporate human resource executives rank maintaining organizational culture as their top workforce priority for 2021.
But many of the forum posts we reviewed suggested that employer efforts to do that during the pandemic by orchestrating team outings and other get-togethers were actually pushing workers away, and that this type of “culture building" was not welcome.
One worker's company “had everyone come into the office for an outdoor luncheon a week ago," according to a post, adding: “Idiots."
Surveys have found that what workers want most from management, on the issue of corporate culture, are more remote-work resources, updated policies on flexibility and more communication from leadership.
As another worker put it, “I can tell you, most people really don't give 2 flips about 'company culture' and think it's BS."
Kimberly Merriman, Professor of Management, Manning School of Business, University of Massachusetts Lowell; David Greenway, Doctoral Candidate in Leadership/Organization Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Tamara Montag-Smit, Assistant Professor of Business, University of Massachusetts Lowell
The pandemic has many people questioning whether they ever want to go back to the office.
If one thing is clear about remote work, it's this: Many people prefer it and don't want their bosses to take it away.
When the pandemic forced office employees into lockdown and cut them off from spending in-person time with their colleagues, they almost immediately realized that they favor remote work over their traditional office routines and norms.
As remote workers of all ages contemplate their futures – and as some offices and schools start to reopen – many Americans are asking hard questions about whether they wish to return to their old lives, and what they're willing to sacrifice or endure in the years to come.
Even before the pandemic, there were people asking whether office life jibed with their aspirations.
We spent years studying “digital nomads" – workers who had left behind their homes, cities and most of their possessions to embark on what they call “location independent" lives. Our research taught us several important lessons about the conditions that push workers away from offices and major metropolitan areas, pulling them toward new lifestyles.
Legions of people now have the chance to reinvent their relationship to their work in much the same way.
Big-city bait and switch
Most digital nomads started out excited to work in career-track jobs for prestigious employers. Moving to cities like New York and London, they wanted to spend their free time meeting new people, going to museums and trying out new restaurants.
But then came the burnout.
Although these cities certainly host institutions that can inspire creativity and cultivate new relationships, digital nomads rarely had time to take advantage of them. Instead, high cost of living, time constraints and work demands contributed to an oppressive culture of materialism and workaholism.
Pauline, 28, who worked in advertising helping large corporate clients to develop brand identities through music, likened city life for professionals in her peer group to a “hamster wheel." (The names used in this article are pseudonyms, as required by research protocol.)
“The thing about New York is it's kind of like the battle of the busiest," she said. “It's like, 'Oh, you're so busy? No, I'm so busy.'"
Most of the digital nomads we studied had been lured into what urbanist Richard Florida termed “creative class" jobs – positions in design, tech, marketing and entertainment. They assumed this work would prove fulfilling enough to offset what they sacrificed in terms of time spent on social and creative pursuits.
Yet these digital nomads told us that their jobs were far less interesting and creative than they had been led to expect. Worse, their employers continued to demand that they be “all in" for work – and accept the controlling aspects of office life without providing the development, mentorship or meaningful work they felt they had been promised. As they looked to the future, they saw only more of the same.
Ellie, 33, a former business journalist who is now a freelance writer and entrepreneur, told us: “A lot of people don't have positive role models at work, so then it's sort of like 'Why am I climbing the ladder to try and get this job? This doesn't seem like a good way to spend the next twenty years.'"
By their late 20s to early 30s, digital nomads were actively researching ways to leave their career-track jobs in top-tier global cities.
Looking for a fresh start
Although they left some of the world's most glamorous cities, the digital nomads we studied were not homesteaders working from the wilderness; they needed access to the conveniences of contemporary life in order to be productive. Looking abroad, they quickly learned that places like Bali in Indonesia, and Chiang Mai in Thailand had the necessary infrastructure to support them at a fraction of the cost of their former lives.
With more and more companies now offering employees the choice to work remotely, there's no reason to think digital nomads have to travel to southeast Asia – or even leave the United States – to transform their work lives.
During the pandemic, some people have already migrated away from the nation's most expensive real estate markets to smaller cities and towns to be closer to nature or family. Many of these places still possess vibrant local cultures. As commutes to work disappear from daily life, such moves could leave remote workers with more available income and more free time.
The digital nomads we studied often used savings in time and money to try new things, like exploring side hustles. One recent study even found, somewhat paradoxically, that the sense of empowerment that came from embarking on a side hustle actually improved performance in workers' primary jobs.
The future of work, while not entirely remote, will undoubtedly offer more remote options to many more workers. Although some business leaders are still reluctant to accept their employees' desire to leave the office behind, local governments are embracing the trend, with several U.S. cities and states – along with countries around the world – developing plans to attract remote workers.
This migration, whether domestic or international, has the potential to enrich communities and cultivate more satisfying work lives.