The Impact of Technology on Modern Work
Over the last century, technology has been advancing at a rapid rate. First, it was personal computers, the internet, and email that introduced us to the modern workplace. More recently, with the introduction of new tools like artificial intelligence and automation, it has become clear that technology is still changing the way we work. As technological advancement continues, one of the most significant impacts it has had is on the traditional 40+ hour work week in corporate America.
The introduction of technology has enabled businesses to increase their productivity. This trend towards increased efficiency has been documented and discussed extensively over recent years. However, what is often overlooked is how this increased reliance on technology can have a negative effect on well-being. Coinciding with the extreme and unwavering pressure on employees and managers to produce, the introduction of technology has enabled businesses to normalize the expectation that employees will work for longer hours or at minimum be available to answer emails and texts outside of working hours.
For a while, employees were eager to use these technologies to demonstrate their commitment and work ethic, and to ultimately “get ahead”, either in their main job or via a “side hustle”. However, precipitated by the pandemic, workers are increasingly deciding that hustle culture must die so that we can truly live. It has become common knowledge that being “always on” and having access to – and the expectation to keep abreast of – so much information at our fingertips leads to overwhelm, stress, burnout, and physical health problems. This ultimately reduces productivity and contributes to a variety of negative health outcomes. Now workers are demanding changes to the standard framework for work.
An Evolution of the Work Week
John Maynard Keynes famously wrote back in 1928 that technological advancement would bring the workweek down to only 15 hours within 100 years. While Keynes’ prediction may not have come true yet, there are some organizations that are beginning to embrace shorter workweeks with policies like 4-day, 32-hour weeks. In example after example, companies large and small that have implemented a shortened workweek report higher productivity, reduced operating expenses, and improved employee well-being.
In 1965, a Senate subcommittee predicted that, by the year 2000, the average American would work 14 hours per week and have seven weeks of vacation each year. While we missed that benchmark, a 32-hour work week has been championed more recently in Congress, as well as internationally. The Netherlands has a standard 4-day workweek and boasts some of the happiest citizens of any nation. In Germany, the average workweek is 34.2 hours, and they’re considering cutting it back further to 4 days. The UK, Scotland, Iceland, Finland, Belgium, New Zealand, and Spain are also considering or piloting a 4-day week.
Despite the nascency of this paradigm shift, productivity improvements resulting from the implementation of a shortened work week are well documented. Just as promising for employers – and perhaps even more so for employees – are the positive effects of the shortened workweek on well-being metrics, like mental health, stress, burnout, and physical health.
Forgo the Status Quo
Technology has revolutionized how businesses operate by enabling them to become more efficient than ever before – but it’s important not to overlook its impact on employee well-being when implementing new systems and processes in pursuit of increased productivity gains. By making sure that a healthy balance between work and leisure time remains part of your organization’s culture, you’ll be able to maintain a productive workforce without sacrificing employee well-being along the way. Ultimately, as technology advances so should our approach toward managing workloads if we want everyone – from employees to customers – to remain happy and healthy in the long run.
These types of policies demonstrate an understanding that as our economy evolves so should our approach to work and how much time we spend doing it each week. By taking steps towards reducing burnout and improving employee mental health through shorter workweeks and other measures, businesses can ensure they remain productive while also creating a healthier workplace environment and remaining an attractive employer in a highly competitive landscape. But, it’s not just a recruiting gimmick; improvements in a number of key metrics from productivity to well-being have been measured by companies who have dared to dive into a 4-day week. So, what do we have to lose?
To end with a quote from the very forward-thinking John Maynard Keynes, when the workweek is reduced, “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”