Health and Healthcare Systems

Is a 3-day split week the way to get people back to work?

People practice social distancing inside an elevator prior to arriving to their work places at World Trade Center, after the government announced that private and state companies will reopen their offices after almost two months of lockdown amidst concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 11, 2020.

Sri Lankan office workers social distancing inside an elevator, May 2020 Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Simon Brandon
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Future of Work

  • UK organization proposes splitting the working week into two three-day shifts.
  • Would make workplaces safer and get more people back to work, RSA says.
  • New Zealand considering shorter working week; previous trials were positive.

As schools and workplaces begin to reopen around the globe, it is becoming increasingly clear that the world into which we are emerging will be very different to the one we left – and many of the changes could be here to stay.

This ‘new normal’ is based on an updated conceptualisation of personal safety. As a deep recession looms and the education of more than 1 billion children worldwide remains on hold, a new kind of balance must be struck between restarting economies and preventing the transmission of a highly infectious and deadly virus.

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To this end, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), a UK-based organization, has proposed a new approach to the working week: splitting it in two. By dividing employees into two groups, each of which would work a consecutive three-day shift – with workspaces deep-cleaned between each shift – physical distancing in offices would become much easier to maintain. This move, the RSA argues, would also help more people back into work at a time of lowered demand for labour, as well as reducing congestion on the roads and increasing the take-up of cycling and public transport options.

Splitting workforces like this has already been tried by some firms, particularly in Asia. In South Korea, Credit Suisse divided its employees into two separate groups as early as February. Other major banks took a similar approach.

As in so many other areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated trends that were starting to gain some traction prior to the outbreak – such as the shift to remote working. A survey by the University of Montreal found that many people feel they are actually more productive and innovative when working from home. The crisis will have forced the issue for many businesses who either hadn’t embraced remote working previously or who had only tested the water; it now seems as though it will become part of the new normal.

The drop in hours worked around the world suggests a huge fall in productivity
The drop in hours worked around the world suggests a huge fall in productivity. Image: CCSA/ILO

Could the same be true of the shorter working week, as envisaged by the RSA? The idea has gained traction elsewhere. New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern floated the idea of a four-day week as one way to boost domestic tourism. It’s not government policy – she has described it as a matter “that really sits between employers and employees” –but it has already been tried in New Zealand, with promising results. In 2018, a company called Perpetual Guardian conducted a two-month trial of a four-day working week in association with the Auckland University of Technology; the results were so successful that the company announced it wanted to make the shift permanent. It reported greater productivity, lower stress levels and improved work-life balance among its employees.

A study of European firms who conducted similar trials last year reported similar results, but there were downsides, too. Almost three-quarters of the managers surveyed said that despite the advantages there were significant hurdles to implementing a four-day week, too, such as bureaucracy, contract issues and staffing challenges.

But in a world upended by COVID-19, those barriers don’t seem quite as important or insurmountable anymore. The RSA’s suggestion is not, after all, about improving work-life balance; it is, rather, an attempt to model a way to bring as many people back into work as possible as safely as possible. The pandemic has forced us all to re-evaluate and reconsider fundamental aspects of our lives that we may have taken for granted, and has given us a tabula rasa upon which to do so. Could a shorter working week become part of the new normal? Given the enormous changes we are already experiencing and absorbing into our daily lives, the question must be: why not?

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