The modern working day almost seems set in stone, with eight solid hours each day and 40 long hours stretched out over the week. Some forward-thinking organisations are trying to change the status quo, however, with time-limited working weeks and shorter days both trialled over recent years. As workloads shift and lifestyles become increasingly stretched, it turns out that working less may be the best way to accomplish more.
Working hours have changed a lot over the decades and centuries. For example, while a 72-hour working week was common at the height of the Industrial Revolution, this number dropped considerably between 1870 and 1930, and kept sliding at a reduced rate until the present day. There are still big differences between countries today; with Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom working around 40 hours per week; and most European nations working 36-38 hours per week.
Some companies are experimenting with reduced working hours in an effort to increase productivity and change workplace culture. Tech companies are often at the cutting edge of these shifts, with Microsoft leading the charge with a four-day week recently implemented at their Tokyo office. Incredibly, when Microsoft gave its 2,300 employees in Japan five Fridays off in a row, productivity jumped by a massive 40%.
A similar experiment in New Zealand trialled the four-day working week for eight weeks in a row, also to positive effect. When Perpetual Guardian told 240 staff to stay home on Fridays, they reported feeling more committed, stimulated, and empowered. While the science behind the four-day working week is far from solid, giving people time off may give them less reason to waste time when they are working. People only have so much energy and creativity to give, with a compressed working week possibly leading to higher standards and less procrastination.
Instead of a four-day working week, some people have argued for retaining the five-day week but cutting the working day to seven or six hours. As the world speeds up around us, people in the western world are suffering from longer commutes, greater fatigue, and a growing perception of not enough personal time. Whether this manifests on a physical level as sickness, or on an emotional level as stress and depression, our working lives often seem to take over. There may be some silver lining, however, with a more connected and automated world possibly allowing us to relax our working hours.
According to Adam Grant, leading psychologist and New York Times bestselling author, “the more complex and creative jobs are, the less it makes sense to pay attention to hours at all.” With smart software and machinery increasingly used to automate working tasks, the rise of the creative human worker may also bring a reduction in the working day. Despite positive results from recent experiments, however, the eight-hour workday still reigns supreme. According to Grant, this is mostly due to the long-term habits of decision makers, because “Like most humans... leaders are remarkably good at anchoring on the past even when it’s irrelevant to the present.”