As I See It: Thank God It’s Thursday
August 8, 2022 Victor Rozek
The five-day workweek is generally attributed to Henry Ford, although it actually originated some 18 years earlier. In 1908, a New England cotton mill adopted the practice so Jewish workers would not have to toil on their Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Ford, who ironically was a virulent antisemite, not only embraced the idea but made two notable improvements: His five-day workweek was limited to 40 hours; and, employees did not suffer a decrease in pay.
At the time Ford was paying $5 per day, which doesn’t sound like a princely sum, but his employees were actually able to purchase an automobile on that salary. Now five bucks barely buys you a latte or a gallon of gas.
It was a revolutionary change. Reducing the workday to eight hours was long thought to be a socialist’s wet dream. Back in the early 19th century, Welsh reformer Robert Owen was acclaimed as the first person to articulate the concept by calling for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest”. Although how much you could recreate after spending eight hours digging coal is debatable.
It’s amazing that the archetype survived as long as it has. Neither labor unions, nor quantum leaps in technology, nor exponential increases in productivity have significantly altered it. To challenge the 40-hour, 5-day workweek took a pandemic.
The tipping point came as big chunks of the white collar workforce began working from home during the initial covid outbreak. Many found it to their liking. If the occasional office visit was required Friday would be the last day on anyone’s preference list. Which is why it came as no surprise when I saw the following headline in Economy section of The Washington Post: “Nobody wants to be in the office on Fridays.”
From an employer’s perspective, I imagine that headline being part lamentation and part accusation. To a degree they are losing control of the workplace. A shortage of qualified employees gives the remaining staff a greater voice in when, where, how, and if they work. From an employee’s perspective, it’s, well, duh! For the vast majority, the answer to “Would you like a three-day weekend?” is unequivocally Yes! If you have to ask the question, you haven’t been paying attention.
Economic correspondent Abha Bhattarai shares a telling story about a woman who was kind enough to bring a box of donuts to work on a Friday. The problem was, not a single person showed up to eat them. For some of us that wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, but the poor woman didn’t even like donuts.
In fact, Bhattarai reports: “Just 30 percent of office workers swiped into work on Fridays in June,” That’s low, but the other days of the week didn’t inspire substantially greater attendance. The most attended day was Tuesday, when a scant 50 percent of the workforce showed up. And Mondays were only marginally better than Fridays when a less than epic 41 percent decided to grace their place of employment.
Employers are in a bind, and those who prefer a full – or at least fuller – office on Fridays have been reduced to enticing employees with assorted temptations.
“There are taco trucks and wine carts, costume contests and karaoke sing-offs,” reports Bhattarai, “all aimed at getting workers to give up their couches for cubicles.” That’s all well and good, but if they won’t come for donuts do taco trucks really stand a chance? Wine carts, on the other hand, may rate higher on the temptation scale for some, but wine and work have a compatibility issue, and employers certainly don’t want their employees driving home half juiced. Or do they? A digital marketing firm has, what Bhattarai describes as, “free-flowing happy hours beginning at 4 p.m. sharp.” The only rule, she says: “No shots.” I’ll bet that slows ‘em down.
Some of the more-tightly wound corporations are offering less imaginative incentives such as “Zoom-free” Fridays. Wow, who wouldn’t fight commute traffic for that?
Others, among them notably startups and tech firms, have given up the fight for Fridays and gone to a four-day workweek. It was, they discovered, a war of attrition, with shrinking productivity and rising resentment.
The fear for companies considering the shift to a four-day week is that Thursday will become the new Friday, meaning people will begin to zone out Thursday afternoon, anxious to leave and jumpstart their weekend. Pretty soon they’ll have to be bribed with flotillas of food trucks and ice cream socials on Thursday just to get them to come to work. But for companies that have made the shift, that has not turned out to be the case. Employees are still meeting their targets, and productivity has not demonstrably fallen.
As an unintended consequence of fewer people working on Fridays, and some of those who do, enjoying in-house drinking privileges, Bhattarai reports that local bars are lamenting shrinking after work crowds. Friday, which was once the most lucrative day of the week, is no longer. On the other hand, as unintended consequences go, less drinking is probably not the worst of outcomes.
What’s fascinating about all this is how certain beliefs, traditions, habits, become institutionalized and remain unquestioned for long periods of time. We default to doing things a particular way because we’ve always done them that way.
Most people work because they have to. The lucky ones work out of passion, the less lucky out of necessity. The ones passionate about their work are less likely to be delimited by days of the week or hours in the day. For the rest of the workforce, one would think that eating regularly and living indoors would be sufficient motivation. And it is, at least for a time. As Japan discovered a few decades back, each successive generation comes to view their economic bounty as a baseline, to which they are entitled, earned solely by virtue of birth. They no longer wish to work as hard or as long as their parents to maintain the same standard of living.
That desire manifests in a variety of ways from career change to demands for higher wages or fewer hours. Then there’s the passive-aggressive approach: Going through the motions, physically present but mentally checked out.
The pandemic created sufficient disruption to prompt people to question what they really wanted. Did the traditional model still make sense? Were their lives short on balance or lacking meaning? If so, what remedies were available to them?
For a growing number, it would appear, the four-day workweek is the answer.