Are you still “working 9 to 5”? The revolutionary eight-hour workday, introduced by Henry Ford and later immortalized in song by Dolly Parton, might be falling out of favor.
In the past few decades, research has uncovered a lot about worker productivity and the factors that increase or decrease it. Simultaneously, technology has made it possible for knowledge workers to do their jobs from almost anywhere, including those at large enterprise companies whose operations span the globe. These changes have given HR strategists a wealth of new options for tweaking productivity.
The latest big idea in productivity is reducing the amount of time employees spend on the clock. Sweden drew international attention last year when it was reported that the country planned to cut workers’ hours from the traditional eight to a maximum of six per day. The eye-catching headlines were misleading, but some Swedish companies are indeed taking part in an experiment that seeks to determine whether a 30-hour week can enhance work-life balance without diminishing productivity.
Proponents say productivity can actually increase when working hours are reduced, and not all of them are in Sweden. Tower Paddle Boards, a rapidly growing small business in the San Diego, Calif., area, swears by its five-hour workdays. CEO Stephan Aarstol told CFO magazine he introduced the policy as a summer experiment and encouraged employees to tinker with different methods of making it work. They did, and the policy has now been in place for a year and counting.
Amazon is the latest company to test-drive this trend, which might come as a surprise given its reputation for expecting long hours. While the company plans to maintain the traditional 40-hour work week for most employees, some will move to dedicated teams that work a 30-hour week. Another twist in Amazon’s take on the shorter workweek is the fact that salaried employees who work fewer hours will get paid less, which is not the case in the previous examples and has more in common with flexible or part-time hours.
Billionaire Carlos Slim has also floated the idea of shortening the workweek, though he favors reducing the number of days worked per week rather than focusing on daily hours. Slim, one of the richest people in the world, believes that three-day workweeks could enable people to work until age 75. Extending the typical retirement age, Slim argues, could be a win-win for workers and companies.
What do the successful experiments have in common, and what can HR leaders learn from both the positive and negative outcomes? Most, like Tower Paddle Boards, are small companies. Many also have relatively flat hierarchies in which employees are empowered to find creative ways to pack a full workday into fewer hours without cutting corners. And while the Swedish experiment has also encompassed medical personnel and auto mechanics, most people working fewer hours are part of the knowledge economy.
The perils of working too many hours are well known in fields such as medicine, transportation and manufacturing, where mistakes made by overtired workers can have tragic consequences. More recently, the 2013 death of a 21-year-old bank intern in London – reportedly after 72 straight hours on the clock – prompted white-collar industries such as banking and law to re-examine their own cultures of overwork. Perhaps the new openness to drastically shorter working hours arose in part from that reckoning, though this experiment is unlikely to catch on at major investment banks anytime soon.
And while the traditional workday may be on its way out, behavioral economist Dan Ariely cautions against cutting too much time too quickly: Hack two or three hours off an eight-hour shift without sufficient preparation and your employees might focus on the wrong tasks. “We feel virtuous after emptying our email inbox or checking off items on our to-do lists,” he writes. “If the workday shrinks, we’d rather sacrifice real progress than surrender that feeling of gratification.”
What does that mean for the way we work? The crucial component in a shorter workday is the employee, and not everyone can handle both the increased pressure and the greater freedom afforded by a reduction in hours. It’s vital to make sure workers understand that they will be evaluated based on outcomes rather than hours on the clock. On the other hand, granting a curtailed schedule to some workers but not others will inevitably create envy, as one of the Swedish experiments found. If your company opts for a piecemeal approach, look for ways to show employees who must keep working 40-hour weeks that they are valued members of the team.
From Henry Ford to Amazon, the workday has transformed in some ways but stagnated in others. Every change that stuck came about through experimentation. Some ideas worked; others backfired. Some advances are only feasible at large enterprise organizations or small, local businesses, or in countries with strong social safety nets, or for highly self-motivated employees. The workforce of the future remains very much a work in progress – and we are all living in its laboratory.