The Future of Work is Already Here, but Do We Know What It Looks Like?

Future of Work - Empty Office

It’s said the future of work has arrived with the advent of hybrid and remote working becoming the norm and companies around the world trying out different working models, like four-day weeks. Are we there yet, and does it look the same for all?

Long commutes, office-bound five days a week, and the nine to five workday all seem like relics of a bygone era. Even though pre-pandemic life was only two and a half years ago, for most of us, it feels like it was a lifetime. Work no longer has the constraints it once did. And flexible and remote working are no longer buzzwords, but just the way a lot of us do things now.

Things have changed for good, but there’s still no consensus on what it should look like. What’s the best model we should all follow to guarantee high levels of production, while balancing the need to promote mental and physical wellbeing.

Work is culture.

Work, just like other elements in our society, is a social construct. The norms and assumptions it employs is a reflection of our culture at that time.

In wealthier nations, the length of our work week has been on a trajectory of decline for over a century. In fact, the five-day work week we know all so well was popularised by Henry Ford in 1926. He reduced it for his employees from six days to five, without dropping their pay. Other factors, like the creation of unions in the 20th century, also contributed to its standardisation.

When the pandemic forced us office dwellers to work from home for extended periods of time, it gave us the opportunity to question these work ‘truths’ once again. The pandemic showed we didn’t need to physically be in the office to be productive. For many of us, some degree of hybrid working is not only preferred, but expected. It’s not just our physical presence in the office that’s being questioned either. To obtain workers’ nirvana, do we need to go further and turn the concept of work on its head?

We’re not productive 100% of the time.

We’re not machines. We’re human. So, our productivity can’t be sustained at the same level throughout an entire eight-hour period.

A UK study of almost 2,000 full-time office workers discovered people on average only worked two hours and 53 minutes each day. The rest of the time was spent chatting to co-workers on things not related to work, browsing social media, making food or drinks, and so on. The study asked participants if they considered themselves productive throughout the full work day, with 79% replying no.

Another study conducted by software company, Asana, spoke to more than 10,000 workers. They found respondents spent 58% of their time doing ‘busywork’ like emailing or attending meetings, rather than the work they were hired for.

So, if we’re not at our optimal capacity throughout a whole eight-hour period, this raises the question – are there better ways to work?

The four day week.

The biggest pilot of its kind has launched in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Championed by not-for-profit, 4 Day Week Global, it sees companies establish a four-day working week, keep salary and staffing levels the same, while reviewing the impact it has on productivity levels.

In Australia and New Zealand, the trial launched this month in August and is set to finish in January. Its findings will be reviewed by researchers from the University of Sydney, University of Queensland and Auckland University of Technology.

Results of the ANZ study won’t be available until next year. However, other countries that have conducted similar trials found it to be successful. In Japan, Microsoft tested the four-day week and discovered its productivity increased by almost 40%, while its electricity costs went down by 23%.

In Iceland, 2,500 workers took part in a four-day week trial between 2015 and 2019. Here, they found improvements in areas of stress and burnout, health, and work-life balance. For some other countries, a four-day week has become law. In Belgium, it’s an employee’s right to choose between a five-day or four-day week without any impact to their salary.

There’s definitely upsides to the four-day week. And it’s something that’s preferred by the majority of the workforce with a study in the UK finding 89% in agreement. Four-day weeks mean employees are happier, less stressed, and able to focus more on their jobs. It also helps with recruitment as a way of attracting top talent.

However, there’s also downsides as well. It doesn’t suit all industries and roles – especially those that require a seven-day presence or long shifts like healthcare. Plus, a four-day week won’t work for everyone and some prefer working overtime.

The seven-day week.

For full flexibility, some companies are going a step further trying out the seven-day week. Arup in the UK tested this out in 2019. Their employees had the choice to spread the 40-hour week across the week any way they choose. The trial found around 90% of employees felt more productive and were able to manage their work and personal lives much easier.

What does the future of work look like?

The pandemic has shown us there’s not one, standard rule for everyone. The ideal model of work needs to meet the needs of its company and industry, while also meeting the individual needs of its employees to achieve best results. What works for one business, won’t work for another, and what works for one employee, won’t work for the next. The future of work is here and it looks different for everyone.

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