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Will the Next Great Office Debate Be About Work Weeks?

"Workers are not returning to the office full time" has been an ongoing story for two years now. It may soon be superseded by "workers changing what it means to work full time." Last week, news outlets reported on the results of the world’s biggest trial of the four-day workweek, which had been organized by the advocacy group 4 Day Week Global in collaboration with the research group Autonomy, and researchers at Boston College and the University of Cambridge.  

Results were unambiguous. As the Washington Post reported, "participating companies’ revenue “stayed broadly the same” during the six-month trial, but rose 35%on average when compared with a similar period from previous years. Resignations decreased." Only three of the 61 participating companies did not plan to continue with any element of a four-day workweek. 

What will be interesting to see: Will workplace leaders note the results of this pilot -- and other studies showing nothing but upside to a four-day work week -- and try to see if they can get similar results by adjusting their workplace accordingly?  

Or are we going to see another example of a sustained sentiment gap between a workforce and workplace leaders, despite clear evidence that hybrid work offers ample upsides for specific roles, like we're seeing with the ongoing debate over hybrid work?  

It might help workplace leaders to consider whether or not they want to be on the leading edge of a shift in work culture. Make no mistake -- we're undergoing the beginning stages of a massive work-culture shift. People didn't head into offices overnight -- the first office building was built in 1726 in London, but clerical work and a broader shift to white-collar work took another hundred-plus years. The same goes for "office hours." The 20th century describes an arc of labor activism, research and technological changes that introduced the idea of a 40-hour workweek, then rapidly undermined it with the advent of laptop computing and mobile phones for an available-anytime expectation. 

The history of white-collar work across the last 150 years describes work circumscribed by both time and place; the cultural language around how we talk about "work-life balance" is based in the idea that work is something we do separately from how and where we live. 

However, the nature of work is shifting; it's no longer tied to the idea that work only happens with a group of people in the same place at the same time. This is an extension of the work disruption the personal computer engendered -- "work" moved from creating and interacting with physical artifacts (i.e. papers) to creating, interacting with and sharing digital assets. We've seen that change in the nature of work continue along that technological arc -- it's gone from a personal computing model where a specific file lives on a specific user's specific computer to a model where files live in the cloud and can be accessed and worked on based on who needs access at what point in a collaborative task flow. 

There will always be location-specific and role-specific labor that requires in-person teams. But perhaps workplace strategists can reframe work as the collection of task flows people do to achieve specific outcomes within specific time frames. Then, the question shifts to how to design a workplace that fosters maximum outcomes. We've got the data to get started -- let's see what the next iteration of "work" can be.