In the United States, the 40-hour work week is a century-long tradition, originally put in place by union organizers seeking better working conditions. The original workday was 10 to 16 hours, and over time, it became evident that this kind of work was draining and unsustainable. When the workday was cut down to eight hours at Ford Motor Company in 1914, wages were doubled due to increased productivity. Less work equaled better outcomes for both employers and employees, and evidence has shown that less work could equal better outcomes today as well, with research showing that a shortened workweek and flexible scheduling improves both productivity for companies and work-life balance for employees.
The fact that most employees work for 8 hours per day is more arbitrary than anything. In 1817, Welsh activist Robert Owen advocated for reduced working hours with the slogan, “”Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” While the ensuing 8-hour day did increase productivity and worker satisfaction, the hours themselves were not based on any form of research or data about worker productivity. The average worker actually does not work a true 8-hour work day. In fact, research by Voucher Cloud, a British shopping brand, found that office workers were only truly productive for an average of 2 hours, 23 minutes every day. Other parts of the day were spent on activities such as checking social media, reading news websites, texting, talking to coworkers, and making food in the office. This behavior is natural and not simply the result of laziness or a poor work ethic. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has found in his research that even highly skilled workers such as musicians and athletes could only concentrate for around 4 to 5 hours at a time, after which their productivity declined. In another study, researchers found that the most productive workers are actually those who worked roughly an hour, then took a break for 15 to 20 minutes.
Research has shown that cutting work hours increases productivity and makes workers more efficient. In 2018, a New Zealand-based will writing company gave workers an extra day off every week while keeping pay and other benefits the same. Workers were 20 percent more productive, both performing better and enjoying their jobs more. A retirement home in Sweden also gave workers a shortened work day, and found that nurses were both happier and more productive at work, leading to increased quality of care for residents. According to a study of 500 British companies by the Henley Business School at the University of Reading, switching to a four-day work week saved $120 billion as operating costs dropped due to lower absenteeism and increased productivity.
Cutting work hours and offering employees flexible scheduling also goes a long way towards increasing employee loyalty and job satisfaction. This is another huge win, especially for companies that have trouble retaining employees. Both Millenials and Gen Z have stated that flexible scheduling is an important factor for them when considering a job. One study even found that Gen Z considers workplace flexibility more important than health benefits. Another survey by FlexJobs also found that 80 percent of employees would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options. Offering this flexible scheduling, which often includes reducing total hours worked so long as the job gets done, makes employees feel cared for and valued by their employers. This leads to greater job satisfaction and loyalty overall.
The evidence is strong that reducing hours on the job and allowing employees flexibility in their work leads to happier, more productive workers with stronger loyalties to their companies. While some companies are turning towards a reduced workweek, they are still in the minority, with about 27 percent of companies nationwide offering employees the option to take four 10-hour days rather than five 8-hour days. According to a report from The Society for Human Resource Management, other trends include the ability to work from home, which has become even more prevalent due to remote working during the pandemic. Hopefully in the future, more companies will consider offering employees flexibility and the opportunity for a better work-life balance. It’s likely to increase their bottom line, too.