Photo of a laptop on an office desk with an empty chair

Looking at how the working world is re-evaluating professional obligations

Rozena Crossman

Reams have been written about the shift to remote working. And yet, for many people, the more pressing issue right now isn't where, but how much they work.

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback: From the rise of the four-day work week to legally punishing overtime, the world is waking up to the importance of a balanced workload.


This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

HAIL THE 4-DAY WEEK

Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

Ireland is next in line, with plans to launch their own four-day workweek program starting next January. On the other side of the Atlantic, Canadian municipalities have been testing out fewer working hours since 2020. California is currently reviewing legislation to remove a workday as well.

IS OVERTIME OVER?

Changes are also afoot in China, as the People's Daily reports that the government, together with the country's highest court, issued a joint guideline last month meant to curb the number of hours employees are required to work.

The document, issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Welfare and the Supreme People's Court, takes special issue with the so-called "996" workweek, whereby by employees — in sectors ranging from tech to construction — are called on to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for six days a week.

The "996" practice is illegal, the guideline notes. Instead, employers should respect the standard working period as stipulated by Chinese law, namely eight hours per day with a maximum of 44 hours per week. Weary employees can only hope the statement leads to stricter enforcement.

EMPTY SEATS

Infographic about Italy's shortage of truck drivers, as the country will scramble to fill 17,000 such jobs in the next two years.


In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because o the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines.

The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

Observers are noting a parallel, in rich countries, between the transport sector and the agricultural industry, which has long relied on cheap, foreign labor to keep costs down.

KEY HELP WANTED

It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all?

An recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment.

The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on. Was quarantine a trial run for the future hierarchy of work?

OUT OF OFFICE

Les Echos isn't the only French daily concerned about future changes in the world of work. A recent article in Le Monde offered its own analysis, but from an architectural perspective.

"The boss' office with four doors and Cerberus guarding the entrance is disappearing," French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, talking about the spacious, secretary-controlled offices long reserved for company heads, told the newspaper.

This is partially due to the rise of so-called "hot desking" — giving workers desk space in rotation — and a hands-on managerial approach where supervisors work next to their employees to promote communication.

"Hoping to keep young people by making them believe that in 10 years they will have an office three times as big doesn't work anymore," another architect, Philippe Chiambaretta, explained.

BUMP IT UP

Hot desking is the least of concerns for farmers in Nigeria, 80% of whom operate on a small scale but are able, nevertheless, to produce 80% of the world's oil palm. What they are worried about, and with good reason, is the problem of poor logistics.

Outdated tools and transportation issues prevent these workers from making a real profit and limit their ability to invest in more crops. That, in turn, slows growth for the entire sector. Fortunately, though, a startup called Releaf just raised $2.7 million to build new smart technologies to speed up the value chain process.

Releaf is the latest in a trend of funding businesses to bring momentum to the promising agricultural industry in many African countries. Companies like Gro Intelligence and Aerobotics raised capital for similar projects earlier this year.

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