Anne-Marie Slaughter hopes the pandemic will lead to a shorter (and more productive) workweek.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced many employers to take a long, hard look at the modern workplace — including New America CEO and author Anne Marie Slaughter. One of the changes she hopes to see as the world slowly returns to normal? That the U.S. moves toward a six-hour workday or a four-day workweek, signaling a broader push to shorten the typical workweek.
“I hope we’ll look back and see that the pandemic — all the things that people went through, what they started to think about, and how they wanted to value their time — led to not only a much more flexible but a shorter workweek,” she tells KCM in a new interview.
Slaughter, who runs one of the biggest think tanks in Washington, D.C., believes that the pandemic has inspired more companies to shorten their working hours as many workers continue to work from home or in a hybrid setting that brings them into the office a few days a week. “I don’t know what the right balance is, and there’s a lot of experimentation, but I think it’s perfectly possible to be deeply productive on 32 hours a week and fundamentally have a better, stronger society thanks to all the things you can do with those extra hours,” she says.
Though the standard workweek is limited to 40 hours under the Fair Labor Standards Act, this number generally varies based on age and gender, and the pandemic has of late become a major factor. Many Americans report working as much as three extra hours each day due to current conditions, Bloomberg reports.
While the idea of working fewer hours per week without reducing workload may seem counterintuitive, evidence suggests that it can work — and may have some serious benefits, ranging from improving mental and physical health to boosting productivity. In fact, Microsoft experimented with a 4-day workweek and found that productivity jumped by 40 percent. Similarly, Iceland cut down its workweek from 40 to about 35 hours for the same pay in an experiment without any decline in productivity, and many workers actually got more done in that timeframe.
But this research hasn’t gone unnoticed: The idea of a shorter workweek has been gaining some traction in Congress. In July, California Rep. Mark Takano introduced legislation to make four-day workweeks the norm and reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to about 35 hours. Like Takano, Slaughter insists that it would create a healthier work-life balance at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has blurred the lines between work and personal lives. “I think people are understanding that you can do better work and have a better life with a lot more flexibility,” she says.
In addition to creating a better work environment, Slaughter adds that a four-day workweek would bring greater equality into the workplace, given that women typically shoulder most of the household and child-care responsibilities. This burden came back to the forefront in the pandemic when schools and daycare centers closed, causing demands at home to skyrocket. But men and women didn’t split this responsibility equally: A global study found that, on average, women took on 173 additional hours of child care last year, compared to 59 additional hours for men. This could explain why 3.5 million mothers living with school-age children left the workforce last spring or are now disproportionately facing burnout. About 42 percent of women said they felt burned-out “often” or “almost always,” compared with 35 percent of men, according to a new annual Women in the Workplace report.
Still, Slaughter believes there’s a silver lining. “In some ways, I think it will help women become leaders of new ways of working and living that are more sustainable and more satisfying,” she says. That seems to be true: That annual Women in the Workplace report also found that the same stresses brought on by the pandemic motivated many women to redefine their ambitions, and reset the terms of their careers. Driven mainly by women of color, the number of female-owned businesses jumped by nearly 50 percent in 2020, up from 27 percent in recent years, according to the human resources technology provider Gusto.
Slaughter has long been vocal about equality in the workplace. In 2012, she garnered national attention for her widely talked about piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The essay quickly became one of the most-read articles in The Atlantic’s history, generating almost 3 million clicks alone. But she says the title was “deeply misunderstood” by people who didn’t read past the clicky headline. “The original title of the Atlantic article was supposed to be ‘Why Women Can’t Have it All…Yet,’” she explains. “I never thought that women couldn’t have it all.”
Since then, Slaughter has become a public advocate for caregivers, especially after seeing women driven out of the workplace during the pandemic, when child care centers were shuttered. She calls President Biden’s push to improve child care and make it more accessible “remarkable.” After all, Slaughter understands the struggle of balancing child care firsthand: Before becoming CEO of New America, the mother of two was named Dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, and became the first woman director of policy planning for the United States Department of State in 2009. That experienced informed her latest book, Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics, where she uses her professional and personal experiences as a “jumping-off point” to advocate for broader social change.
“My eyes have been so opened by the reading and conversations I’ve had and that process will continue,” she says. “But I think that’s a journey we all have to be on.”