‘Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation and eight hours’ rest’ - the slogan of an early 19th century movement to cut the typical working day to only eight hours.
For the better of the past century, eight hour shifts have become the norm in much the western world, with 9-5 the standard for office workers.
It’s only in recent years that we’ve begun to question this approach. Today’s teleworking technology has been the main driver of change, but our knowledge of psychology (and physiology) has also suggested that a shorter working week would be better for everyone.
Benefits of a shorter working week include:
Reduced absenteeism due to a decrease in mental and physical health problems associated with working longer days (or five days a week).
Lower energy costs for businesses.
Higher employment. More leisure time for office workers means more money is spent in tourism industries and elsewhere, boosting employment in these sectors.
Improved employee wellbeing. Staff have more time to pursue hobbies, work on personal projects and visit friends and family.
Environmental benefits. Employees spend less time commuting and the business consumes less electricity and water - that’s a significant cut to your company’s carbon footprint.
Another factor to consider is the efficiency of our current working week - is every hour being used productively?
Most office workers would answer ‘no’ to this question - as long as their boss wasn’t listening! At 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon, what percentage of employees are working at the top of their game?
The answer will vary from office-to-office, but I’m betting that it’s not at 100% for any business. That means that productivity isn’t as high as it could be, and you’re paying for it.
In theory, there’s a sweet spot when it comes to working hours. The ideal working day will be short enough to ensure close to 100% productivity throughout, but long enough to get plenty of things done. Eight hours might be that sweet spot for some employees, but is it right for everyone?
Whether you’re discussing a shortened working week or shortened working days, the shift comes down to one thing: results.
If an employee can achieve the same (or better) results with a shorter working week, then logic suggests they should be paid the same for their efforts, even if they spend less time in the office.
Sadly, the real world doesn’t work that way for most of us. ‘Face time’ is still seen as ‘productive time’, even if employees are sneakily browsing social media sites instead of working.
However, there are signs that change is on the way. In the Netherlands, the average working week stands at only 29 hours, and a significant percentage of staff take advantage of compressed hours to work four-day weeks.
In Sweden, six-hour days are becoming a popular option for many companies. In the US, some companies have made the switch - most notably Treehouse, an online school whose staff work four eight-hour days a week - and they’ve seen great results.
For a business in a country with a traditional working culture, it’s difficult to make the leap. For example, you might lose trade to your competitors if a client can’t get hold of you because your office is closed on a weekday.
As with any cultural change, it’ll take time to ditch the perception that time spent at the desk equals productive time.
Flexible working arrangements are a stepping stone to a shorter working week, to some degree. Many companies now allow for flexi-time - so long as a it doesn’t impact performance - and compressed hours are becoming a viable option for many employees.
Of course, some employees are perfectly happy to stick with working 9-5, Monday to Friday - and many directors and entrepreneurs would say that a 40 hour working week is a luxury!
However, the evidence for a shorter working week continues to stack up - and even top economists have stated that a 20 hour working week would be ideal given the changing structure of the global economy.
How do you think the typical working week will change in the coming decades? I’d love to hear your thoughts.