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Derek Thompson on the Five-Day Workweek
It's becoming a three-day office week within a longer workweek
Derek Thompson wrote a provocative article in The Atlantic, called The Five-Day Workweek Is Dying. I’d like to unthread a few of the ideas he’s explored.
He spoke with Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, who offered up a fairly compelling argument, that we won’t ever go back to five days in the office [emphasis mine]
“The number of person-days in the office is never going back to pre-pandemic average, ever,” Bloom told me. After two years of working from home, he said, employees don’t just prefer it. They also feel like they’re getting better at it. Despite widespread reports of burnout, self-reported productivity has increased steadily in the past year, according to his research.
In the next decade, U.S. workers will spend about 25 percent of their time working from home, Bloom says. That’s 20 percentage points higher than the pre-pandemic figure, leaving companies with an important choice: sign for significantly less office space, or accept that significantly more of your space will go unused on a given day.
Bloom is betting strongly on the latter. “Office occupancy has plummeted, but corporate demand for office space is down only about 1 percent,” he said. “That might sound shocking, but it’s because so many companies planning for hybrid work are expecting most of the office to be in on some days of the week, so they can’t shrink their space.”
If you think that through, Bloom’s reading of the companies’ plans only makes sense if the companies are expecting people to all come in on the same days. Which, maybe they are, or maybe it's just unknowable at this point. So if they are planning for people to come in on the same days, what days? [Again, emphasis mine.]
According to Bloom’s research, the most popular model of hybrid work has employees in the office Tuesday through Thursday. “This model, with Friday through Monday out of office, is hugely attractive to new hires, and it’s become a key weapon for companies,” he said. “It’s not that everybody gets a four-day weekend, but rather it gives them flexibility to travel on Fridays and Mondays, while continuing to work.”
For some knowledge workers, Friday through Monday may come to occupy a murky space between weekday and weekend—a sort of work-play purgatory, where the once-solid walls between work and life become more porous. “Mondays and Tuesday are the fastest-growing days of the week for travel,” Airbnb’s chief executive, Brian Chesky, told me. “More people are treating ordinary weekends like long holiday weekends.” In short, the typical five-day workweek may dissolve into something stranger and less settled—a three-day office week that exists within a longer work week.
So people will plan on working in the office for most or some of Tuesday through Thursday, and the new convention will be to avoid face-to-face or even virtual meetings on Mondays and Fridays, just like we don’t have meetings on Saturdays or Sundays, except in emergencies. However, that doesn’t mean people won’t work on Mondays and Fridays, just like many people work to some extent on Saturdays and Sundays, already.
The New Weekend will expand, colonizing Mondays and Fridays.
Thompson covers a number of other themes in the piece, with one I find most provocative.
Recall in the discussion with Bloom, Thompson said that companies are not dropping their plans for real estate, since they anticipate people will be coming to the office on the same three days a week: Tuesdays through Thursdays. So who is harmed by this? The cities’ politicians would like to see people coming in five days a week, as in the good old days. As Thompson puts it,
For this reason, some of the most outspoken advocates for return-to-office these days aren’t chief executives, but rather politicians and state officials. “Business leaders, tell everybody to come back,” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said earlier this month. “Give them a bonus to burn the Zoom app.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams echoed those remarks. “New York City can’t run from home,” he said. “It’s time to get back to work.”
But the politicians have little leverage, really. And when thinking of the future of the city — like San Francisco and New York — the status quo ante had a large number of seemingly intractable problems, like a housing crisis, the environmental costs of millions of suburban commuters to-and-froing five days a week, and traffic gridlock.
Instead of trying to take advantage of the upside of this revolution, the politicos simply want the genie back in the bottle.
So what are we seeing? While people don’t want to commute from the suburbs, they do want to live in great cities:
Rents in the New York area are skyrocketing, as people pour into Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Hoboken. A remote-work New York will not be the same place it was in 2019. Residential neighborhoods will bustle throughout the week, while Wednesdays in Midtown will feel like Sundays in Midtown used to. Some Manhattan offices will transform into apartments, alleviating the island’s housing crisis, while transit presidents will feel pressured to raise ticket prices, sadly punishing the low-income in-person workforce. The point is not that these things are all good or all bad but precisely that they are complicated. Americans really, really don’t want to go back to the office, and we are just beginning to feel the repercussions.
Except that the empty office buildings in Midtown might be where the conversion to apartments takes place.
All things being equal, people don’t want to commute: they want to live and work in the same area, and they would like it to be a walkable community with life’s amenities: stores, restaurants, bars, panks, post offices, and so on.
Add to that Bloom’s findings — people don’t want to go back to five days in the office — fewer workers will be filling the streets, trains, and highways of core cities on any given day. But that may, in the long run, work out better in all ways, except the way that cities’ infrastructure is paid for.
Less work going on, but more living.