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We were promised a four-day workweek

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Good morning! Hybrid work is great in theory, but there’s definitely room for improvement. And one place to start might be implementing a four-day workweek once and for all.

It’s the worst of all worlds

I remember my last day in the office in March 2020. COVID-19 was spreading, and I was one of the last people going into my (now former) workplace’s building. I hit the lights in my office that stared into the maw of Times Square and stood there alone watching digital billboards glitter and sparkle to an increasingly sparse crowd.

The pandemic ushered in an era of rethinking every facet of how society functions, including how we work. Many of us were sent home with no return-to-office date set. The carbon-cutting benefits of not commuting were hotly debated and the four-day workweek was even floated in the halls of Congress. Ultimately, we’ve ended up in a weird, in-between space of hybrid work. It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

Hybrid work is a decidedly mixed bag for the people and the planet. In some ways, it’s the worst of all worlds: Work bleeds into downtime, and burnout has become even more acute. And to top it all off, the climate may end up suffering, too.

  • It’s not all bad, of course. Remote work means reclaiming commute time for whatever employees see fit. For some, it may mean more work. For others, it may be an extra 30 minutes to deadlift to their heart’s content at the gym. Not commuting also comes with climate benefits since fewer cars on the road means less carbon pollution.
  • A NBER paper published in December 2020 found that commercial building electricity use plummeted in the first few months of the pandemic while residential use rose. However, commercial electricity use rebounded sharply while residential use stayed elevated.
  • In essence, companies that have kept their offices and allow employees to come in as they please means the lights, air conditioning and more are staying on at the home and the office while Zoom calls put ever more carbon into the atmosphere.
  • That cost workers $6 billion in added electricity bills between April and July 2020 alone. And the increases in utility bills have hit low-income households and communities of color the hardest.
  • “[Hybrid work] doesn't address company inefficiencies,” Joe O’Connor, the CEO of 4 Day Week Global, told me. “If anything, we have more digital distractions and more unnecessary meetings now than we did a couple of years ago. And it doesn't address employee overwork.”

The situation sucks, but there are ways to fix hybrid work. Companies may have created a crappy future, but we’re not stuck living in it. Making remote work more climate-friendly could also be to tech companies’ benefit given their climate plans’ focus on operational emissions.

  • Some companies are mandating time off, which can help employees cope with burnout — or ideally avoid it in the first place.
  • Others are getting rid of their offices completely, thus stamping out a source of emissions.
  • MoreThanNow, a U.K.-based consultancy, and researchers at the London School of Economics put out a report in 2021 outlining nudges companies could take that would make hybrid work climate-friendly.
  • Among them are encouraging active commuting, taking online meetings with the video off and working with utilities to help employees switch to clean energy.
  • Public policy has a role to play, too. Spain recently implemented heating, cooling and lighting rules for offices as well as public places in a bid to save energy. This is admittedly not a climate-saving measure (though it is that) but one to preserve methane gas supplies with the threat of a Russian cutoff looming.

The four-day workweek could still come to fruition as well. In fact, it’s already being piloted. Seventy companies in the U.K. are two months into a program to test the four-day workweek. Early results sound encouraging, with workers feeling happier and productivity continuing apace. Some gaming companies are among those that have also given it a shot with equally positive reviews. Rep. Mark Takano introduced a bill last year to codify the 32-hour workweek in the U.S., which hey, dare to dream!

  • “In the last six to 12 months, we found that the conversation and the momentum have been turbocharged” behind the four-day workweek, O’Connor said. “Companies are turning to this as a vehicle to give them a competitive edge in a very tight labor market … Hybrid, remote, flexible options, those things are not a competitive advantage, they're an industry standard.”
  • A smattering of research indicates that a four-day workweek could also pay climate dividends by reducing emissions tied to commuting and office buildings.
  • Of course, if people end up hopping flights for a long weekend in Vegas, that could make those reductions a wash.

That points to the need to reconsider how we live and slow down, which maybe wouldn't be so hard with a four-day workweek. And if living more intentionally leads to reducing emissions, too, then it’s a win-win.

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