Aspire to a Five-Hour Workday? A Four-Day Workweek?

By Glenna Crooks

 

As we contemplate returning to on-site office work, this may be a good time to recall the pre-pandemic experience of a New Zealand company that tested a 20%-shorter workweek. The result? It made employees happier and more focused while producing the same amount of work.

To accomplish that, employees brainstormed ideas to eliminate less productive work (like meetings), avoid social media and signal others when they should not be interrupted. If you read about it at the time, you know they made the change permanent.

Years before, my consulting firm did something similar, though in phases and not so thoughtfully. In phase one, we agreed to work four ten-hour days. Two weeks was all it took to realize that was not a good idea. By late-day Wednesday we were less productive; Thursday was a real slog. In the next phase, we worked our usual Monday through Thursday hours and, like many companies in summer months, only half-days on Friday. The incremental productivity on Friday didn’t seem worth the effort it took to power up for the day and do the commute, however, so we eliminated Friday work altogether and enjoyed a three-day weekend.

Unlike the New Zealand firm, we did not produce the same amount of work. We produce more. Our income doubled year-over-year for three straight years. Other firms report similar results. Tower Paddle Boards, for example, moved to a five-hour workday in 2015 and achieved record-breaking sales. Blue Street Capital cut the workweek and found sales calls per person doubled and revenues increased 30% the first year, 30% the second, and grew from nine to 17 employees.

Fans of shorter workdays and workweeks attribute better results to happier employees and capturing better workforce focus and energy. They link overworked employees to higher rates of chronic disease and depression, health costs equivalent to smoking, and employee burnout costs to the global economy of $30B. Oh, and overworked employees are more likely to cut ethical corners and steal from employers.

It’s not just on-the-job dynamics that matter, however, it’s the rest of our 24/7/365 “always-on” lives these days.

First, off-the-job, workers manage their health, households, and spiritual, social, and community lives. Realize this and it’s easy to see why it’s challenging to balance work against so many other aspects of life to achieve a ‘work-life balance.

An extra day off helps everyone.

Second, when employees have children, they manage upwards of 150 people engaged in helping them ensure children are healthy, safe, fit, educated, enculturated into their traditions.  That’s far more ‘direct reports’ than anyone has on the job and is no easy task for any parent. When children have special health or education needs – or talents – the management load is greater still.

An extra day off helps parents.

Third, unlike in times past, parents and the adult children of older parents face challenges caused by today’s smaller, more disrupted, and more geographically distant families. Fewer family members are available to pitch in because of high rates of divorce and single parenting, 40% of working-age adults live an average of 700 miles from extended family, and women – traditional caregivers – are in the workforce as well.

The extra day off helps caregivers.

The pandemic has been tough on everyone, but especially parents and caregivers. It’s also catalyzed a debate about the quality of work and life everyone wants in our future. In the next post-pandemic phase, as we transition back to work and children transition back to school, we’ll have the opportunity to address the concerns arising in those debates.

The productivity impact of fewer work hours or fewer workdays indicates those might provide additional ways to support the higher quality life on-and-off the job so many people say they want. Even better, the experience of companies that successfully implemented those changes can serve as a model to encourage others to add that to their list of options for the future.