Opinion: The future of work

Maybe September. That’s been the general answer to the question about when work will return to “normal.” But that response was elicited before the surge in cases due to the fast-spreading delta variant of the coronavirus. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, dozens of large corporations had planned to start their return-to-office campaign right after Labor Day. That strategy may have to be put on hold.


As early as July 19, Apple said that it would delay its office-oriented work schedule until October, at the earliest. On the other hand, most banks — including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs have been maintaining the five-days-a-week model for the past month or more. There seems to be no single accepted standard. The business consultant firm of Willis Towers Watson reports that corporations have not caught up with the new reality because they don’t know what the new reality is.


Even when people work from home, there is great variation as to what that means. In May, Homedit did a survey and found that 59 percent of home-based workers did their work from a dedicated work desk. That would be the median norm, but it leaves 41 percent who chose alternatives. According to the survey, 14 percent used the kitchen table; 11 percent did their work from a couch or sofa; 8 percent from bed; 2 percent, garage; and 6 percent from some other location.


Hybrid model


Some companies plan to experiment with a hybrid model, whereby workers come to the workplace at least part of the week. Grant Thornton, another consulting firm, reports that 59 percent of workers said they wanted flexibility in their work schedules, and 40 percent said that they’d look for another job if they had to be at their desks in the workplace full time. In fact, a third of those workers are already searching for other employment.


Probably the biggest challenge facing employers who want to maintain a stable workforce is the issue of a shortened work week. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Patrick Thomas concludes that a “shorter workweek is more likely to be a fit for smaller service businesses, but not larger companies in highly competitive industries.”


Wildbit, a 30-person Philadelphia software company, has experimented with a 32-hour workweek. Marketing Director Justine Jordan said that means fewer meetings and avoiding day-to-day distractions. It can also cause problems with team effort as some people choose to take Friday off, others Monday, and some parents — especially those with younger children at home — spread their time across five days


Kickstarter, a public benefit corporation, that is involved with crowdfunding, will start its four-day workweek next year. Aziz Hasan, CEO of the company, says that there are still several questions to be answered. How can meetings be shortened. Should different teams work at different times or on different days from other teams?


Hasan said, “We don’t have the perfect design today. You could say the same thing with remote work, it wasn’t widely accepted until we stepped into this pandemic and people are now seeing capabilities unlocked by it.”


International comparisons


The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted a study of 20 industrially-developed countries and found that the United States and the United Kingdom had the only workforces in which the number of hours worked per year increased during the decade between 2009 and 2019, but the U.K put in about 250 fewer hours than the U.S. in both survey years.


The greatest decrease was shown to have occurred in South Korea. There, workers put in close to 2,200 hours/year in 2009, but fewer than 2,000 in 2019. Patrick Thomas points out, “The idea of a shorter workweek has long had more traction outside the U.S., especially in places where long working hours and stress are not as big a part of the culture.”


Of course, this work ethic is probably instrumental in making the U.S. the world’s largest economy. In areas like finance and law, working weekends and late at night are considered to be “badges of honor” and are key to gaining promotions. David Yoffie of Harvard Business School adds, “For large corporate America, (a shortened workweek) wouldn’t fit the culture of expecting everyone to be available at any given point of time in a highly competitive business where decisions need to be made quickly.”


Demographics and change


The United States has been slow to consider shortening the work week or decreasing work hours, but that will have to change. Perhaps the COVID-19 experience will accelerate acceptance of alternative work styles. Our population over retirement age is increasing and people are living longer. Fewer workers are asked to support programs like Social Security and Medicare. The millennial generation was born to privilege compared to their grandparents, and the work ethic of this group and those who follow may be quite different from that which was carried forward by today’s parental generation.


We see homelessness and unemployment (the kind that is not reported in official statistics) increasing in our cities, both large and small. No matter what politicians may promise, the well-paying factory jobs of the past will not return, and that’s not just a problem of outsourcing. Even when and if U.S. manufacturing expands, AI applied to machine technology can do the job better, more efficiently, and — with accelerated depreciation of the machines on tax forms — less expensively than human hands.


A cooperative Congress is desperately needed to find a solution to these problems that threaten the very foundation of our economy and society. Developing a model for flexibility in the workplace needs to be on the agenda, and bringing dropouts back into the workforce will help to solve a myriad of society’s problems.


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Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.