As Mark Twain famously said that the stories in the newspapers of his death were somewhat exaggerated, springtime celebrations of the pandemic’s demise were, unfortunately, more than a little premature. If anything, the virus took a brief respite, reinforced itself with a new variant, and is currently spreading wildly throughout Israel and just about the entire globe. Locally, crowds are lining up to get that third vaccine, and dangerous debate has begun on the legality of forcing anti-vaxxers to bare their upper arms. Although the economically crippling constraints that we had to endure during the earlier phases of the pandemic have not yet been reinstituted, it’s fair to say, I think, that unless the numbers of those in serious condition or succumbing to the virus start going down drastically, serious steps, in addition to masks that are currently mandatory in many situations, will have to be taken. And while everybody is bravely saying that there will be no additional lockdown, promises are all too often adjusted to accommodate to changed conditions.
If nothing else, this dreadful malady that Israel and the rest of the world has been struggling with for the last year and a half has resulted in a number of changes to our daily lives. More likely than not, I would guess, even after the virus, will, once and for all, be neutralized and masks and social distancing will no longer be required, some of the modifications that have been made necessary by the pandemic will be adopted as the “new reality”. Remote learning, for example, may prove to be a more practical alternative for those living in the periphery, and while it’s unlikely that synagogue services will be conducted outdoors on a regular basis, many congregants have found a more streamlined, less time-consuming prayer structure preferable to what has been the norm for many centuries. It will be interesting to see if there will be any changes to the order and content of the established liturgy for the upcoming holidays.
The economy, too, has needed to adapt, and working from home, once an option that various companies gave the nod of approval to from time to time, has become commonplace and, in some places absolutely mandatory. Even prior to the pandemic many government and corporate entities throughout both hemispheres have managed to overcome obstacles relating to security protocols, interoffice communications and personnel monitoring and supervision, and have been steadily increasing the number of employees that have traded a white collar for no collar. Due to the pandemic, many Israeli businesses, too, have had no choice but to deal with these challenges, and, like the others, managed in most cases to come up with suitable workarounds. As part of this “new reality” and in concert with the advantages to productivity and efficiency, it is more than likely that this modified workplace structure will not disappear even after the virus does.
Now, then, might be the time to give some thought to another change to the workplace paradigm. Based on studies that have been going on for a number of years, countries throughout Europe and South America have been modeling the likely results of a four-day workweek, and will be watching carefully as Spain will be the first to actually implement such a program. Although not yet universally endorsed, based on the preliminary evaluations and conclusions of those studies, the advantages are not insignificant; there is no reason why Israel, too, could not benefit from a similar transition.
Even while thousands of businesses were forced to close due to the lockdowns and layoffs, Israel’s economy remained – and still remains – relatively robust. Our 45-hour workweek is somewhat more arduous than what is typical in, let’s say, Scandinavia and therefore may not be immediately suitable for an ongoing three-day weekend, but there’s no reason why an adaption cannot accommodate itself to a revised version of the typical 45-hour, five days a week model. What comes to mind is a compressed two-week structure in which employees work an extra hour for nine days with every other Sunday or Thursday off. That extra hour of work might, for some, be somewhat burdensome, but then again, no reward comes without a price.
The obvious and most convincing argument for such a structure would be a greater amount of time in which the family can be together, resulting in an improved work/life balance as well as an enhancement to work satisfaction and productivity. For families in which both spouses work, a long weekend twice a month would substantially reduce the amount of stress typically associated with not providing adequate attention and quality time to all members of the family, and provide a welcome opportunity for outings, family visits, relaxed shopping, etc. In Israel, a “secular” day off – for the Shabbat observing community, Friday, particularly in the winter, is hardly a day of leisure – would provide an opportunity for greater intermingling of the religious and non-religious segments of the population, thereby creating greater cooperation and understanding between the two. And in a nation as divisive as we are, ways in which the gap between these two groups can be closed must be looked at seriously.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that such a model results in reduced commuting time and costs, which, in turn, reduces the burden on the road and highway system as well as improving the efficiency of public transportation. Workplaces can benefit from a longer number of hours and an increase in the number of total staff hours during high peak workloads can easily be accommodated by overlapping schedules.
This is not to suggest that a compressed workweek will not involve some adjustments to existing routines and habits, and structuring the working schedule to ensure that there will be continuous coverage will require some creative thinking and compromise. Planning, moreover, will be necessary to ensure that contractual obligations and deadlines will not be adversely affected. And, of course, since not everybody will be enthusiastic about working an extra hour a day, consideration might therefore be given to making a compressed workweek an option rather than something mandatory.
Moreover. combining working from home together with a compressed workweek is nothing less than ideal. That extra hour of work would be far less troublesome if it was performed from a den or dining room table and the frustration of crawling home in rush hour traffic will no longer be relevant. Add to that flexibility as to when a workday can start and end would further add to the employee satisfaction and motivation – a winning situation all around.
Understandably, not every business entity is suitable for a compressed workweek, and in some cases legal or union issues may be encountered. And, of course, the human resource departments will need to revise existing policies related to vacation time, overtime pay, holidays, and the like. Problematic? Maybe, but this is not the first time the Israeli corporate sector implemented a major change to the existing status quo. Innovation, after all, is what being the Start Up Nation is all about.