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How automation will drive the four-day week revolution

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Vasin Lee)

Not long ago, there was glamour in ‘hustle culture’. In many industries, a ‘go hard or go home’ mindset was expected of employees who wanted to be successful. There was pride in being the first-in and last-out at the head office; in working harder, faster and stronger, every single day. 

But then everything changed. Adopted by necessity during a crisis that kept people apart, remote working was meant to be a temporary solution to working during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, this supposed stopgap has been the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way we work. The white-collar business world realized it could function adequately - better even - with the technology we already had. All employees needed was a laptop and an internet connection.  

This sea-change has proven to be the death knell for ‘always-on’ business culture. Exacerbated by the additional stressors and anxieties of a health crisis (illness, pressure to keep routines, national lockdowns, economic uncertainty and travel bans) organizations faced a very real problem of employee burnout. Work cultures that once rewarded willingness to break backs in and out of company hours began to be replaced by policies, initiatives and technologies that sought to build sustainable, equitable and humane working environments capable of weathering current and future disruption. 

The need for remote working has tapered, but many organizations have continued to favor hybrid working approaches in order to continue to leverage the benefits of more productive, innovative, happier and healthier staff, not to mention access to a wider talent pool.

The four-day working week

Forget beer fridges and table football, a willingness to help staff achieve a better work-life balance has become the beacon of the progressive organization, and many are leaning on the latest technology to do so. 

Right now, business leaders have a window of opportunity to rethink the status quo and rebuild working life in a way that benefits both individual wellbeing and business productivity. A disruptive concept that has been noncommittally floated for decades, the pandemic has catalyzed a resurgence of interest in the holy grail of work-life balance: the four-day working week. Shopify, Buffer, Kickstarter, Basecamp and Atom Bank are just some of the forward-thinking businesses that have embraced this significant reduction in mandatory hours, while countries including Iceland, Scotland, Spain, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates have immersed citizens in similar trials.

“For creative work, you can’t cheat. My (belief) is that there are 5 creative hours in everyone’s day,” Tobias Lutke, CEO of Shopify tweeted. Having founded an e-commerce platform now valued at nearly $50 billion, Lutke added that the only time he’s worked more than 40 hours a week was when he had a “burning desire” to do so: “I need 8ish hours of sleep a night. Same with everybody else, whether we admit it or not.”

As the generation’s influential business leaders take an active stance on the benefits of a more equal work-life balance, organizations across all industries will face pressure to act in kind or risk losing both relevance and appeal. Bold statements are easy to make, of course, but mainstream eagerness to follow suit is tethered by the practical question of how such a reduction in hours can be achieved without affecting bottom lines or causing staff shortages. 

The answer lies in technology

As is so often the case today, the answer lies in investing in the right technology. Automation technologies can now make reduced hours feasible without affecting productivity by handling repetitive and menial tasks, such as appointment scheduling, email handling, payroll, shipping and inventory management. Many aspects of work are already becoming reliant on automation technologies, such as customer service, where chatbots are now routinely used to meet customers’ expectations for an immediate response.

The prospect of gaining an extra day a week of personal time will have many employees rubbing their hands (or breathing a sigh of relief) in anticipation. But no two jobs are the same, and the requirements of certain roles may be better placed to make the transition than others, at least in the short term. 

Right now, the admin-heavy task lists managed by receptionists (62 percent), legal secretaries (62 percent) and sales administrators (61 percent) make them primed for partial automation, according to research by Helastel, and therefore most readily transferable to reductions in mandatory working hours by management. 

However, smarter, tech-driven working practices have the potential to alleviate burdensome tasks from professional, associate professional and technical roles, including finance officers, HR & Relations, legal professionals, journalists, IT architects and designers, business analysts, among many more. The technology would enable workers to adjust their focus from rote tasks to those requiring creativity, communication, leadership and problem-solving.

Moving to the mainstream

At present, the uptake of automation technology in business is piecemeal. But research predicts that the technology will be the driving force of modern digital organizations as technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) and low or no code platforms become more advanced and widely adopted. Gartner forecasts the automation technology market to expand by nearly 24 percent from 2020, hitting a worth of nearly $600 billion by 2022. McKinsey estimates that around half of all existing work activities could be automated in the next few decades as the technology becomes mainstream. 

And while once automation was a word associated with job displacement, perceptions are changing as exposure to the technology increasingly yields its practical benefits. A study by Salesforce revealed that 89 percent of automation users are more satisfied with their jobs as a result of using the technology, as time is unlocked to focus on more meaningful work. One in ten (91 percent) said automation tools provide them a better work-life balance. 

A seismic shift has happened in the last two years, but the plates have yet to settle. The future of work is about flexibility, meaning and innovation. By embracing automation technology - not to displace workers but to augment them - organizations can become flag bearers, and partnering with technology specialists is the most effective first step on that journey. 

Forget the hustle. Today, the goal is content and productive employees that have the breathing room to do their best.

Iouri Prokhorov, founder, Helastel

Iouri Prokhorov is the founder and CEO of software developer and IT consultancy, Helastel.