Three Q&As on the new rules of the workplace

Three Q&As on the new rules of the workplace

Including stuff you need to know about back-to-the-office anxiety, the rise of the four-day workweek and the right to disconnect

Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth
The Four(ish)-Day Work Week Pioneers

Last summer, Tulip, a Kitchener-based retail software startup, launched a pilot project to try out a shorter work week. Less than a year later, productivity is up, says Marco Osso, the company’s VP of employee success.

Why did Tulip switch to a four-day work week? Was it a pandemic-inspired action?
Yes and no. Covid played a key role moving us toward a remote-work model. Once everyone was home, it became clear our employees have different types of personal priorities, plus we wanted to support them during such a challenging time. Flexible work hours is also about retaining top talent. We might not be able to offer the same salary as a larger company but we can provide certain lifestyle benefits, which is important to employees. It pays off in other ways, too. Since switching to four days, we’ve seen productivity either go up or stay the same. When people feel like they have ownership over their time, that can empower them to get things finished. The tendency to fritter away the last hour of the day is no longer an issue.

Can I take off any day I want?
When we launched our pilot last summer, everyone took off Friday afternoon. This is known as the Icelandic model; it’s worked very well there because the whole country follows the same schedule. In the end, it didn’t make sense for us because there will always be clients who need support on a Friday. So we moved to a staggered model, with some employees booking a specific morning or afternoon off and others taking an hour a day. Maybe they like to sleep in or need to get their kids to school.

To be clear, this sounds like more of a four-and-a-half-day work week.
True, it’s a half-day off, but it’s not like people here punch in and out. As long as you’re getting your work done and you’re not missing anything, we’re good.

What if I got all my work done in three days? Could I take two days off?
Our people are very busy. We haven’t seen that happen.

Photograph by Niv Shimshon
The Company-Culture Consultants

The folks at Thriver know what it takes to adapt. In August 2020, the former office-catering company rebranded to offer centralized workplace-culture services—including team building, lunch-and-learns, employee gifting and fitness classes for in-office and remote staff. “Companies have had to pivot again and again,” says Tal Brodsky, Thriver’s senior director of business development. “That’s where we come in.”

How does Thriver work?
We act as a platform for service providers, like yoga instructors or chefs who are teaching cooking classes. We list their services on our website, organized by type—whether that’s gifts and swag or health and wellness—and businesses can book through us. We then facilitate everything from material delivery to setting people up with the right video link.

Did you see a big demand right away?
Very quickly we were planning team activities, like trivia nights, to help co-workers stay connected. At that time, companies were focused mainly on fun things. In the summer of 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, we saw an increased interest in diversity, equity and inclusion training so we onboarded more services there. Then, as the pandemic dragged on, employers came to us with concerns about burnout and anxiety so we ramped up our wellness offerings.

What packages are trending these days?
For some clients, we’re helping to coordinate a fourth or fifth return to the office. That can involve figuring out how to safely reinstate a lunch program, or how to help staff worn out from yet another lockdown. Before, companies were asking for one-off wellness services of any kind. Now they want structured, recurring programs. We recently launched an eight-week sound bath and meditation series. Since the beginning of this year, we’ve also received lots of inquiries about retreats and offsites. The companies that have gone fully remote are looking for meaningful ways to bring employees together.

Logging-Off Legislation

On June 2, Ontario’s “right to disconnect” law will take effect, requiring workplaces of 25 employees or more to get serious about keeping after-hours contact in check. We asked Scott Schieman, a U of T prof who studies quality of worklife and its effects on mental health, about the change.

What will disconnecting look like?
The actual legislation is pretty vague. All it’s really saying is that organizations have to come up with a written policy on after-hours contact. What that looks like will vary from one company to another. Maybe it’s stating the hours during which work emails should be sent, maybe it says that if you spend X amount of time dealing with a client on the weekend, you can take X time off during the regular work week. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

To what extent is this legislation a response to the pandemic?
We know Covid has highlighted the need for work-life balance. A lot of the employees I’ve spoken with want to feel that their lives away from the office are respected. But the thing about work is that it can be a greedy master, eating up as much time as you will give it. That reality has only intensified with our 24/7 attachment to devices.

Can’t people just turn off the notifications on their phones?
Yes, but we’ve found that many people get a positive charge from hearing that ping. It makes them feel needed or important, even as it adds to stress and often causes conflict in the home. And even if people do turn off their phones, there’s still the stress that comes from feeling like colleagues may be responding to emails and they’re the ones who will be promoted or get to work on the big new project. We still have this notion that the ideal worker is the one who is most available.

Is there a business case for giving workers more time to unplug?
Absolutely. My research shows that excessive amounts of job pressure—often channelled through after-hours communication—takes a toll on health and wellbeing, which impacts performance. And there’s a business case for anything that improves satisfaction and morale. I think there’s growing recognition of the issues at stake, but certain old-school attitudes persist. There was an episode of Mad Men where Peggy is having to stay late every night because Don keeps staying late. At one point, she turns to him and says, “It’s not my fault you don’t have a family or friends or anywhere else to go.” So I guess in a number of ways, this legislation is trying to protect the Peggy Olsons from the Don Drapers.

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