After a year of home working for much of the country Abigail Marks, Professor of Future of Work at Newcastle University reflects on how the pandemic can help us rethink the pace of work.
From Spain to Germany to New Zealand there has been much discussion about the potential benefits of the four-day working week. On the surface, the move away from the ‘norm’ of a five-day week should be celebrated. However, the very nature of a discussion about the four-day week makes narrow assumptions about the contractual nature of the majority of workers in the UK. In particular, the exclusion within this discussion of the ever-growing army of gig and platform workers, frequently on zero-hours contracts, makes the debate about change to the working week somewhat dated and disingenuous.
Looking critically at the idea of a four-day working week, a reduction in the number of working days has the potential to add pressure to an already struggling workforce. There is a risk of further work intensification by reducing the amount of time allowed to complete an ever-growing list of tasks. What is really needed is a clear and inclusive overhaul of the very idea of working time to improve employees’ pace of work as well as creating a more robust form of work-life balance. In the UK in particular, a large proportion of workers believe that their work and family lives are not compatible with one another and they are more likely than other European workers to feel that work spills over to family life.
The sheer volume of work is undoubtedly increasing. For the 42% of workers based at home from Spring 2020, the Working@Home project identified that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an exceptional increase in both the volume and intensity of work. This is due to three distinct but interrelated factors. Firstly, the creation of work by the pandemic, for example, requiring additional bureaucracy to manage pandemic-related operational changes. Secondly, the move to home-working, which for the majority of workers has presented some momentous challenges. For many, this has included balancing home-working with home-schooling and other caring responsibilities.
Finally, there is the ongoing and possibly most long-term issue, the negotiation of online working including the management of collaborative meeting technologies (Zoom, Teams, etc). From a survey conducted at the start of this year, it was identified that 44% of people feel that they are always working, exacerbated by the fact that 15% of workers are spending four-five hours a day in Zoom meetings (or the like), 16% six-eight hours and 3% over nine hours.
Not only is work taking over people’s lives, the amount of time engaged in online meetings is becoming unmanageable.
Back-to-back Zoom meetings are one of the noteworthy outcomes of pandemic-driven home-working. If we are going to continue home-working to some degree – as seems to be the direction of travel – we need to rethink the pace of work.
If people feel as if they are ‘always’ working in the classic five-day model, how will they feel when that work is condensed into four days? When workers are in the office, there is a natural change of pace with corridor discussions, walks between meetings, informal coffee breaks, not of course forgetting the commute, which seems to be an unexpected focus of grief for the new breed of homeworker. Mass home-working is removing this natural ebb and flow, the normal change of pace of the working day, meaning that thinking about how we work needs to go beyond a crude look at the number of days in the working week.
Nonetheless, this intensity of work appears to have reassured employers of the efficacy of home-working – employers who, prior to the pandemic were often sceptical that workers would not be as productive from their domestic space. Yet, an increasing number of organisations appear not to trust workers and are using monitoring software to record employees’ working hours, employing tools that were developed for the office to seep into homes via phones and computers. Monitoring software will further damage the pace of the working day by accounting for activities that can be clearly quantified and ignoring the productive but often hidden activities that took place at the water cooler.
If employees are going to be working at home more, the pace of work is changing and the nine-to-five day over five days (or four days) is unlikely to work. Employers and employees need to acknowledge that taking meaningful breaks, as well as varying the pace of work throughout the day, is important for wellbeing and productivity, as well as creating clear boundaries between home time and work time.
We need to use this ‘unprecedented’ change in the nature of work to better balance work. Perhaps now is the time to be looking at new ways of conceptualising work output, which breaks away from quantification of activities and time and refocuses on better human management.