I come from a background with experience on both sides of the ‘work-hours’ coin: one where I worked in excess of 60 hours a week, and one where I work 30 hours a week.
I know how this has affected the quality of my own life and work, but it also opens up the floor to the questions: Is it still relevant in terms of productivity to be squeezing as many work hours into a week as possible? Is it even feasible in the long term?
Let’s start at the beginning. The idea of shorter work hours is not a new one. About 250 years ago, a man named Adam Smith wrote: “The man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”
It’s interesting to note that he uses the term ‘quantity’. The perception, or one of the biggest arguments for limiting workloads/hours on employees is that the quality of work will increase. Thus the assumption is that the quantity of work will suffer as a given (according to the Solow model). Without Smith defining what he meant by ‘moderately’ however, it’s hard to quantify.
The case against the 40-50 hour workweek is steadily growing as people start to experience the positive effects of shorter work hours. It is safe to say, at this point, that the 40-50 hour work week is not moderate, and that reducing work hours can, at the very least, yield the same productivity as more work hours.
Fewer hours does not mean less work done.
Really? Lets look at this with a modern perspective. When the 40-50 hour work week first became the ‘standard’, it was around about the same time as the industrial revolution. Looking at the technology available to people then and to people now, it becomes clearer to see why we need less hours. Technology is the single biggest reason why productivity has increased since the mid 1900’s (productivity has in fact, doubled since the 1970’s). Tasks that used to have to be completed by hand can now be completed in a fraction of the time by a computer. There may have been a time, a kind of ‘Goldilocks zone’ where productivity peaked in relation to work hours and technology available, but that time has certainly passed.
We now do more that we have ever done in any given amount of time. Thus, workloads have greatly increased. Employees often have to move at ‘a million miles an hour’ due to the speed at which they complete tasks in relation to the amount of tasks they have to complete. This invariably leads to greatly increased stress levels, both mentally and physically. Is it really wise to keep increasing workload to fill hours while employees suffer the effects of fatigue, depression and ill health? Because the fact is, more hours does not mean more productivity, it means less.
Better rested, healthy and less stressed employees will deliver you more, of better quality, in less time. Whether you implement a 6 hour work day over 5 days (like we do at Brave) or an 8 hour work day over four days – employee morale, retention, loyalty and quality of work will all increase, as CEO Maria Brath from tech startup ‘Brath’ and interactive education platform ‘Treehouse’ have experienced first hand.
Does this mean that employees working fewer hours should be paid less? Not at all. Compensation policy should be geared toward remuneration in relation to productivity and not to the amount of hours worked.
The idea of shorter work hours does seem to have started taking hold world-wide as more and more companies experience the gains. Interestingly, future prediction website www.futuretimeline.net predicts that by the year 2099, the average employee will be working less than 20 hours a week. By the 22nd century it predicts that AI will be running things and altering the course of history, leaving humans free to do what they want, free from the burden of work. Too bad I won’t be around anymore.
Further Reading on the subject of work hours and productivity:
- The Economist – Proof that you should get a life.
- The Guardian – Efficiency up, turnover down: Sweden experiments with six-hour working day.
- CNBC – Memo to work martyrs: Long hours make you less productive