Could we be looking at a three-day week in the office?

Flexible working does not apply to all pursuits and professions but it is an increasing reality

Young Chinese colleagues working together in a busy co-working space from above. Getty Images
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Open-plan, ugly carpeting and very little natural light, my first office was miserable. Beyond the dank decor, the workplace banter was at best banal, at worst distracting. Only senior management was permitted to work from home. The rest of us spent about 40 hours a week at uncomfortable workstations, frequently glancing at the clock or the dismal view through the tiny windows. Unsurprisingly, I moved on as soon as I could.

Thankfully the corporate world has moved on too. In recent decades, empowered by the information revolution, many workplaces have allowed and even encouraged remote working among their employees. This shift has given birth to the teleworker. On any given workday, coffeeshops now teem with latte-sipping, flip-flop wearers who are beavering away on laptops and taking conference calls on cell phones. Once the 5G phone network kicks in, we might see office workers on beaches and mountaintops too.

Work from home or work from the office, is a question many of us grapple with and more of us will face in the coming decade

More companies, especially start-ups, are opting to use serviced offices. These are fully equipped workspaces that can be flexibly leased on a monthly basis. Some offer a "flexi-desk" option, so from Sunday to Tuesday, you might work from an office with lots of plants and for the rest of the week from the office with a Herman Miller-designed standing desk and sea view.

Serviced offices are another enabler of the current flexible working trend. The communal areas – reception, cafeteria and boardroom – might be shared by employees from dozens of different companies. This arrangement has been dubbed coworking and it can create a real buzz. It is a fertile environment, one which allows for collaboration across sectors and fosters innovation.

I recently gave a talk on employee wellbeing at a coworking serviced office space. The audience comprised designers, architects, psychologists, salespeople and professionals from IT and finance, all gathered in the communal coffee lounge with complimentary pastries and a pool table. Such diverse gatherings often lead to what psychologists call “serendipitous ideation”. Of course flexible working does not apply to all pursuits and professions but it is an increasing reality. Working from home or in an office is a question many of us grapple with and more of us will face in the coming decade. There are of course pros and cons to both options.

Working from home might give us a sense of autonomy. We can start, finish and take breaks whenever we want. Such independence, however, can quickly descend into anarchy. For some of us, our oddly-structured days become increasingly chaotic. Sending emails at 2am while simultaneously binge-watching a Netflix series seems like an unhealthy work ethic.

Another mixed blessing of remote working is the silence and solitude it affords – that is, assuming no one else is home. Even if we opt to work in a busy coffeeshop, the background noise is something we can choose to ignore. It is not so easy to remain blissfully oblivious to a chatty work colleague or a pontificating line manager. On the flip side though, solitude might start to feel like social isolation and working alone might give rise to loneliness.

One of the most significant benefits of the office is the sense of camaraderie, belonging and social identity we can get from being with our colleagues. However, just as other people can be a great source of pleasure and support, it can also be hellish. In some nations, workplace bullying and harassment are on the rise.

Some of us might reduce the hours we work from home because it blurs the boundaries between family time and work time. Working from home can threaten the delicate equilibrium of a well-calibrated work-life balance. It is difficult and perhaps damaging to tell a playful five-year-old that “daddy is working” when daddy is clearly right there in the room.

Given the pros and cons of office and remote working, the ideal situation might be a bit of both. This would involve regular stints in the office broken up by occasional bouts of remote working. But how much of each is best?

A poll by analytics firm Gallup in 2017 looked at the relationship between remote working and employee engagement. The report suggested that on average, the sweet spot for engagement was when employees worked remotely around 20 per cent of the time – for example, one day per week. Those employees that worked remotely all the time had the lowest levels of engagement, with about one quarter categorised as actively disengaged.

But perhaps four days in the office and one day working remotely is still too much. How about three days in the office and one day of remote working? Microsoft recently tried a four-day working week. In August, 2,300 employees at the company’s Japan office worked four days per week without a decrease in pay. The results were overwhelmingly positive. The change resulted in happier employees, less time off and a surprising 40 per cent boost in productivity.

As paradoxical as it might seem, less is sometimes best. Fewer hours in the office might equate to higher overall output and better quality. At the same time, the sense of structure, connection, belonging and purpose that we can get from a well-run office is also invaluable.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University