Future of work: A case for the three-day weekend

Here's how redefining the traditional workweek can help address unused resources, communication challenges, and other problems that come with remote and hybrid work
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Since around 2010, the “future of work” has been a leading topic for business leaders, entrepreneurs, and employees. A key question has been how emerging technologies such as AI, robotics, and smart machines will affect humans in the workforce.

Then COVID-19 struck.

Seemingly overnight, orderly debates about the future of work morphed into chaotic discussions about the “present of work:” Specifically, could employees work securely using mature technologies like video conferencing, mobile telephony, and cloud computing services?

Forced to shut down their physical offices, corporations resorted to work models predicated on what futurist Carmen Alfonso Rica called a “massive, forced adoption of remote working.” By April 2020, a significant realignment of work was underway, with two models emerging for non-essential employees:

  • Fully remote, in which the employee’s home also serves as their office
  • Hybrid, in which employees work some days onsite at the office and other days remotely

[ Want a primer on hybrid work? Read What is a hybrid work model? Read also: Hybrid work: 4 best practices for fairness. ]

Hybrid work opinions vary widely

A global survey on remote work sponsored by social media engagement firm Buffer.com reported that although remote workers enjoyed flexible work hours, the opportunity to work from anywhere, and not having to commute, those benefits were muted by the inability to “unplug” from work, difficulty communicating/collaborating with colleagues, and loneliness.

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai echoed those findings in a recent New York Times article: “We are working on borrowed time, in terms of working on memories of the relationships you have and the connections you have. It’s taking a toll.”

Research by the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM) highlighted additional shortcomings: 67 percent of middle management supervisors said remote workers were more easily replaceable, and 34 percent said remote work could reduce the career opportunities at their company. SHRM President John Taylor said, “For organizations struggling to determine the best workforce strategy post-pandemic, one fact cannot be ignored – remote work is not for everyone.”

Especially chief executive officers. 

"For organizations struggling to determine the best workforce strategy post-pandemic, one fact cannot be ignored – remote work is not for everyone."

Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai says, “I do miss meetings in which you can go to the whiteboard and draw what you are thinking and have others look at it. But work is no longer defined by when it happens.”

However, where matters.

Liz Fraser, CEO of Kate Spade, said, “I don’t care where you live, as long as you have the flexibility to come to New York City when needed.” Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman has a different point of view: “If workers want to get paid New York rates, you work in New York. None of this ‘I’m in Colorado getting paid like I’m sitting in New York City.’”

[ Related read: Hybrid work model: 3 ways to simplify yours. ]

After an internal PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study showed that 83 percent of managers and 71 percent of employees considered the shift to remote work successful, the company announced a bold initiative that empowers all 40,000 individuals of the firm’s U.S. workforce to work remotely. PwC U.S. chairman Tim Ryan says, “There’s almost an inherent bias where remote work is viewed as being negative, but what happens if that’s the opposite? The worst case is remote work doesn’t work out. I am OK with that. We will just fix it.”

Like many other workforce issues, the “present of work” challenge comes with a diversity angle. A recent Conference Board survey reported that 50 percent of women question the wisdom of returning to the workplace given high productivity, compared to 33 percent of men. There’s also a generation gap: 55 percent of Millennials also question the return, compared to only 36 percent of Baby Boomers.

Revisiting the traditional workweek

Prior to the shift to remote work in 2020, the biggest shift in the U.S. workforce occurred in May 1926, when Henry Ford introduced the five-day, 40-hour workweek. He said, “We believe that in order to live properly every person should have more time to spend with their family.” Ford was convinced the change would increase worker productivity on the assembly line – and it did.

Nearly a century later, it may be time to update that five-day workweek model. Implementation of a four-day on-site workweek with three-day weekends for all employees is a compelling way for companies to compete for talent, relieve mental stress on workers, improve productivity, and achieve financial success – all while keeping CEOs happy because office space is being utilized and in-person meetings are happening.

Here’s how this strategy could work:

Organizations would split their employees into two groups: A company with 100 employees, for example, would assign 50 workers into Group A and 50 into Group B.

Employees in Group A would be required to work on-site on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, for a 32-hour workweek. This would placate C-suite executives who want employees back in the office. These employees would then enjoy three-day weekends on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Group B employees would work on-site on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Their three-day weekend would span Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays.

In this arrangement, 100 percent of the company’s workforce would be on-site on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and 50 percent would be in the office on Mondays and Fridays.

Sound radical? Maybe not. Dr. Klaus Schwab, co-founder of the World Economic Forum, described talentism as the new capitalism way back in 2013, and more recently, Howard Davies, chairman of London-based NatWest Group, noted that “the days of staff putting in five long days in the office are gone.”

Sundar Pichai’s observation that we are on borrowed time suggests that such “present of work” decisions need to happen quickly. As for the future of work, in which fewer humans are physically present in the office, AI, robots, and smart machines are poised to fill the void.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Gary Beach’s career spans over three decades in the information technology media business. He has held executive posts at McGraw-Hill and at International Data Group, where  he was publisher of Network World, Computerworld and CIO Magazine. In 1999, he was co-founder of CIO India.