It sounds like a bad punchline: At a time when businesses are having difficulty finding and retaining qualified workers, one state wants to use taxpayer dollars to pay businesses so their employees work less.
That’s the genesis of a bill introduced in the Maryland General Assembly last month, which seeks to study shifting to a standardized four-day workweek. While businesses should certainly reassess how they manage their employees — a move that the pandemic accelerated via the explosion in remote work — they don’t need taxpayer dollars, or government micro-management, to do so.
Paying Businesses to Reduce Working Hours
The Maryland legislation creates a tax credit program, purportedly to sunset after five years, to provide subsidies to businesses. The program would reduce state income taxes for two years for businesses with at least 30 employees that switch from a five-day workweek to a four-day workweek without reducing employee pay.
The bill would fund the subsidy program with up to $750,000 for each of the five years. It would also “encourage governmental units to institute a four-day work week” — which Maryland taxpayers may not appreciate, particularly if it has any effect on the quality of services they receive.
The legislation itself seems like a solution in search of a problem. If businesses find it in their best interests to change or reduce working hours, they will do so. They shouldn’t need taxpayer funding to alter their business practices. And these types of subsidy programs will come with myriad new regulations, which will only further entrench the government’s role in dictating how a business should operate.
Moreover, this type of program could easily prejudice certain types of industries and types of workers over others. Service-sector businesses, in particular, that rely on personal interactions with customers seem unlikely to qualify or want to participate. Would a gas station, or hair salon, shift its employees to a four-day workweek at a time when many can’t find enough qualified employees as it is? I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Rethinking How and Where People Work
As misguided as the Maryland bill is, that doesn’t mean the existing work environment doesn’t need to change. Some businesses could perhaps change their practices to reduce employees’ workweeks — they just don’t need the government paying them to do it.
For instance, what employee hasn’t, at one point or another, found the dreaded “weekly meeting” the bane of his existence? I faced these on Capitol Hill in nearly every office I worked for. Every week — normally at some point on Monday — the entire staff would gather to update the boss on that week’s activities.
In many cases, these types of meetings feature very limited interaction: One person at a time updates the boss, and everyone else listens. And the cumulative effects of those people sitting around waiting to update the boss add up. Even if a weekly meeting lasts “only” half an hour, in a 10-person office, that amounts to five total hours being spent on a meeting — more than half a working day for one employee.
Eliminating endless, and in some cases unnecessary, meetings would certainly improve productivity, as would moving to a task-oriented mindset. Rather than thinking about how many hours an employee needs to “be working,” whether in the office or remotely, managers should focus on ensuring that the essential work gets done. If that means efficient workers can complete their tasks by working 30 hours a week, or even less, why punish those workers for their efficiency by forcing them to sit behind a desk for the additional time?
Moving to a New Paradigm
As someone who has largely worked from home and very independently for the better part of a decade, I have to admit I found the traditional work environment stultifying — so much so that, even before the pandemic, I had difficulty envisioning a scenario where I would return to a “regular” office job.
Working for oneself brings with it challenges — managing income flow among the most significant. But it also provides flexibility that I relish. Work can tend to intervene at odd times, but I would gladly field a work call from Parliament Square (and have) or write an op-ed from a hotel in Florence in exchange for the freedom to explore the world from far beyond a desk. Plus: No boring meetings!
In a bit of a silver lining to an otherwise deadly pandemic, Covid has accelerated these trends by encouraging remote work and empowering employees to move away from crowded cities where they had hitherto remained tied to their desks. Businesses should respond in kind by re-envisioning the way they run their workplaces. They just shouldn’t need or get what amounts to corporate welfare from the government to do it.