Can ChatGPT give us the 4-day work week?

by Sarah Firisen doesn’t love a three-day weekend? If an extra day to relax isn’t good enough, the following week always seems to go quickly, making a Memorial Day, Labor Day, or a bank holiday in the UK, the gift that keeps on giving. Of course, most of us should consider ourselves lucky only to have to work a 5-day week. No law of the universe says a work week has to be 5 days. In fact, the concept of a 40-hour workweek is relatively new; it was only on June 25, 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited the workweek to 44 hours, and two years later, Congress amended that to 40 hours. 

However, there’s now a growing dialog about the efficacy of moving towards a 4-day work week of 32 hours. The idea of a 4-day work week has been gaining momentum in recent years, with more and more companies experimenting with this alternative schedule. The theory is, perhaps counterintuitively,  that reducing the number of workdays can lead to increased productivity and that it definitely leads to better work-life balance and overall employee satisfaction. 

Conversations about the future of work were thrown into a global, real-time social experiment with the COVID-19 lockdowns. Suddenly, every white-collar worker was remote, and every prediction made by skeptical bosses about productivity losses if workers weren’t in the office was mostly proven incorrect. Indeed, companies found that their employees were even more productive while working remotely than in the office. This was partly due to fewer distractions, such as meetings and office chatter, and the ability to work flexible schedules that accommodated their personal needs. In fact, as many of us experienced, when freed from a daily commute and the structure of an office, we often found ourselves working more hours than ever. 

The concept of a 4-day work week is not new, but it has gained more attention recently due to studies showing that overworking can lead to burnout and decreased productivity. As a result, some companies and countries have started experimenting with a 4-day work week to combat these negative effects. A recent bill introduced by Maryland lawmakers proposed giving employers tax incentives to institute a 32-hour work week without cutting pay or benefits. While this bill ultimately died, it is meaningful that this conversation is even going on at a state level in the US. 

Not surprisingly, Europe has been ahead of the US on this topic. In 2015, Iceland started to trial a 4-day work week involving more than 2,500 workers.

 “The experience has been so positive that many employers didn’t wait for the official report to act: Today, 86% of Iceland’s working population, or 174,000 people, have already shifted to a shorter work week or have gained the right to trim their working hours.”

One of the main advantages for organizations that switch to a 4-day work week is increased productivity. Studies have shown that when employees work fewer hours, they are more productive in the hours when they are at work. More time to rest and recover leads to better mental clarity and focus. Additionally, a 4-day work week, combined with remote or hybrid working, can help reduce workplace distractions and interruptions, allowing employees to get more work done in less time.

Another benefit of a 4-day work week is improved work-life balance. Employees have more time to pursue their hobbies, spend time with family and friends, and take care of their personal lives with an extra day off. This leads to decreased stress levels and improved mental health, positively impacting job satisfaction and employee retention.

Conversations about a 4-day work week for knowledge workers have an interesting intersection with the recent AI breakthroughs evidenced by ChatGPT. Technology has long held out both the promise and highlighted the fear of greater automation in the workplace. I used to work for Robotic Process Automation (RPA) company, UiPath, and a theme we were constantly battling was the idea of “the bots are coming for my job.” ChatGPT has exacerbated such worries as people and organizations have explored its capabilities.

“Any system that can automate a human worker’s job is going to cause concerns, as has been the case for decades, but few technologies have caused as much worry as generative AI. According to research by bank Goldman Sachs, these systems could replace a quarter of work tasks in the US and Europe, the equivalent of 300 million jobs, and cause “significant disruption” across big economies.”

Undoubtedly, if automation in one form or another doesn’t take your job, the odds are it will change it. Probably a lot. There have been copious articles written about ChatGPT, some even written by it, over the past 6 months and about its ability not just to take jobs from fields such as accounting and law, which would seem to be ripe for the automation of number crunching and research, but to replace more creative jobs. The types of creative jobs that, in the earlier days of automation, we told ourselves would be the last bastion of human-only activity 

“Just a week after urging its writers to incorporate AI tools like ChatGPT into their workflow, Insider has laid off 10 percent of its staff.”

Long before the lockdown, the surge in remote work, and the emergence of ChatGPT, I wrote about technologies such as RPA automating work, equating these technologies to my beloved Roomba’s ability to automate the mundane task of vacuuming my apartment.

Somehow, by taking away the most mundane and hated of housekeeping tasks (for me), vacuuming, Joanne has enabled me to be an overall better housekeeper; I do the other tasks more willingly and therefore more frequently. And I have more free time to do things that I do value. What might a work day like that feel like? And if I could do the higher value, more interesting, creative, strategic and meaningful tasks in only 4 days once the mundane activities are removed, even better. We should all be rooting for this to be the future of work. “

Because this has been the promise dangled by companies in front of employees who fear automation: you can do less of the boring stuff and more of the interesting stuff. Of course, there is a world of difference between an RPA bot automating the processing of invoices and ChatGPT writing entire articles instead of journalists. However, even with the amazing advances ChatGPT highlights, there are, at least for now, things humans still do better. 

Today,  I listened to my favorite podcast, 538, discuss ChatGPT. The host, Galen Druke, had used it to write his intro, which was surprisingly good. The other person on the podcast with him was Nate Silver,  his boss. Nate joked that the intro was so good that Galen was fired. Everyone laughed nervously. Galen then read some jokes written by ChatGPT about the podcast and the two of them. It was a mixed bag. The jokes weren’t particularly funny. They certainly didn’t have Galen’s clever, biting wit. In reality, while a tool like ChatGPT might replace some of Galen’s tasks, like writing copy, it will be a while before it can do the interviews and commentary as well as Galen can. So perhaps, if Galen can automate 20% of his job, he only has to work 4 days. It’s obvious how this benefits Galen, but what about 538?

“But if a company can take this momentous step from avoiding to embracing everyday automation, it will have a competitive edge. Companies that promote workers who can automate the tedious parts of their jobs will be more profitable in the long run, because those employees can then do more complicated, more rewarding, more human work.”

So, in an ideal world, some tasks get automated by bots and AI, and humans get to do more rewarding, interesting activities, and they can do it in 4 days rather than 5. The payoff for the company is happier, more productive workers. That translates into more creative work getting done, better employee retention, and fewer sick days caused by burnout. 

I recognize that this is all glass-is-half-full stuff. There has been much hang-wringing about whether advances in AI will bring about the end of humanity. Of course, there are usually a lot of naysayers and much hang-wringing when any sort of technology creates paradigm shifts for humanity. There was certainly a lot of that going on during the birth of the World Wide Web in the 90s. And while there’s no doubt the internet can be a cesspool and has done more than its fair share to spread misinformation and cause increased societal polarization, I suspect few people would choose to go back to a time before online shopping, streaming services, Google Maps, etc. Technology such as ChatGPT is here to stay; there’s no way to put that genie back in the bottle. The only questions now are how to govern it and use it as a tool to make life better for humanity.