Dropbox billionaire predicts 40-hour workweek will become a ‘thing of the past’

Drew Houston, 38, says the 40-hour week is ‘an artifact of factory work’ - with trends, studies backing him up

Sheila Flynn
in Denver
Tuesday 28 September 2021 21:56
Downtown Minneapolis seeing fewer workers return to the office
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The 40-hour week may soon disappear from American work life, according to one billionaire executive – and he’s backed up by stacks of anecdotal and academic research.

Dropbox cofounder Drew Houston, 38, told CNN this week that “the workplace will now be wherever work happens, and the workweek will be whenever work happens best for each person”.

He added: “I also see the 40-hour office workweek – an artifact of factory work – finally becoming a thing of the past.”

Workplaces across the US and the globe were jolted into a new reality when Covid hit last year – with all but essential workers making a shift to remote work with practically no warning. Most employers were concerned about communication and productivity – but research has shown that, overall, the benefits have outweighed the risks.

Workers appreciate the absence of long commutes and increase in family/personal time, while companies have begun recruiting from wider geographical swathes, diversifying the candidate pool. There are drawbacks, of course; a lack of all-day facetime can damper collaboration and productivity, and many feel they are “living at work” rather than “working from home”.

There are also challenges regarding corporate culture building, diversity and inclusion, morale and motivation.

But it’s widely accepted, almost across the board in industries that do not require hands-on shift time like factories and plants, that the post-Covid world will centre on hybrid work.

Research commissioned this summer by IWG plc surveyed 1,000 American workers who can work remotely and found that 74 per cent would prefer to spend at least one day in an office environment. Younger workers tend to prefer remote and hybrid work, whereas older generations less comfortable with the technologies seem to favour more traditional work models.

While the 40-hour workweek may not disappear as quickly as predicted by Mr Houston, a study by PwC also found that attitudes had already changed drastically since the beginning of the pandemic.

The study, published in January 2021, surveyed 133 executives and 1,200 office workers in November and December 2020.

It found that a “shift in positive attitudes toward remote work is evident: 83% of employers now say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company, compared to 73% in our June 2020 survey”.

The study also found that 55 per cent of employees would prefer to be remote at least three days a week, while only 13 per cent of executives were prepared to give up the office full-time.

Harvard business professor Tsedal Neeley foresaw the shift even before Covid stopped the world – and the book she was already working on became even more relevant. She published Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere earlier this year.

“I started to work on this book project close to three years prior to the pandemic,” she said in an April interview with McKinsey’s Author Talks. “It’s been a topic that I’ve pursued for nearly 20 years because I was convinced that technology was going to change how we worked, how we connected, and how workforces would be arranged.

“But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the whole world would migrate to remote work, and never did I imagine that it would be in the midst of a pandemic. It pains me that this is how the virtualisation of work has happened.”

Key to easing the transition and implementing successful hybrid workplaces, said Prof Neeley and other experts, is communication between manager and employees, open-mindedness and a keen observance of how both employers and workers are adjusting. The importance of flexibility cannot be overstated.

“The first thing you want to do is survey your employees to truly understand their preferences in terms of how they want to see their work arrangements post-Covid-19 – meaning do they want one or two days a week of remote work? Do they want remote work full time? Do they want nothing to do with remote work? What do they really want? And these surveys should be collected anonymously, so that we truly have a real picture of what people want,” Ms Tsedal said.

“Once you understand that, you want to develop a policy that looks at a hybrid model if you decide to move in a direction that includes remote work and in-person work ... You’ll also need to articulate your revised cultural norms. The culture of your organisation has newly changed, so “What are our cultural norms?” – meaning “What are the appropriate behaviors that we want to espouse to maintain the type of culture that is right for us?”

Companies also must remember to focus on “upskilling your entire workforce on remote work and digital-mindset competencies,” she said.

There are other factors at play when it comes to remote and hybrid work, however. Women have left the workforce in droves during the pandemic as virtual learning and childcare took up even more of their time. Workers from lower socioeconomic brackets don’t necessarily have the technological resources not only to work virtually but even to interview for jobs.

Everyone agrees that the future of workweeks and workplaces remain uncertain and in flux – mirroring the entire planet over the past 18 months. It’s incumbent upon both employers and employees to compromise and evolve, the PwC report sums up, or everyone will suffer.

“Employers will have to recognize that workforce needs and desires have shifted due to the pandemic,” the report found. “They need to understand the concerns of their employees and work with them to build policies and approaches. The return to work will be effective only when employees are on board. If they’re not, companies should be prepared to lose talent.”

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