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Will COVID-19 Cause Companies to Shorten Their Work Week?

  • Anthropological evidence suggests that people generally worked about 15 hours a week during the course of human history
  • Studies have suggested that productivity begins to deteriorate after 50 hours per week, with elevated health risks for long work days
  • COVID-19 restrictions raise the possibility that companies may be more likely to shorten work week to four days or re-evaluate how productivity is measured

Anthropologist James Suzman, in a recent analysis of African hunter-gatherer cultures, concluded that people worked about 15 hours per week for the vast majority of human history. Incidentally, economist James Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would be spending this same amount of time on work as technology improvements and other innovations improved productivity, leaving more leisure time for workers.

While the average employee’s work week has shortened since 1950 and is considerably shorter than the arduous days laborers experienced during the Industrial Revolution, we’re nowhere near that 15-hour ideal. But as the COVID-19 pandemic upends numerous office traditions, companies may be more likely to accept having employees work less than the standard 40-hour work week – even as employees have been putting in more hours per day during the crisis.

Studies have shown that productivity begins to fall sharply when an employee works more than 50 hours a week, and that health issues, injury rates, and other detrimental effects are also associated with longer work weeks. While the pandemic has encouraged employers to be more accepting of flexible schedules as employees try to balance work with child care and other responsibilities, some companies had already started granting workers more control over their own schedules before the pandemic, enabling them to complete personal tasks such as running errands or volunteering in the midst of a work day.

Such an approach would require employers to measure productivity based on outcome rather than hours worked, while also trusting an employee to complete any necessary work. In addition, there has been some support for shortening shifts or adopting four-day work weeks.


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