What science says about your work schedule

For many of us, the eight hour workday and five day work week are facts of life. But are they actually the best way to work, or just an outdated custom?

 

What science says: The 8 hour workday

The eight hour workday was born from a long fight to reduce the average workday for laborers and factory workers (which often ranged from 10-16 hours, six or seven days a week). Since then, it’s been considered the standard (or the bare minimum, depending on your level of workaholism).

While it was a great improvement for factory workers over a hundred years ago, it doesn’t necessarily translate to the best work schedule for workers today. Experimenting with other work schedules often nets big gains, like a study in Sweden that switched nurses at a retirement home from an eight-hour workday to a six-hour one; nurses with shorter days took less sick days and were happier and more productive.

For an American example, Tower Paddle Boats moved their employees to a five-hour workday, without any corresponding drop in productivity or revenue (and in fact experienced a more than 40% boost in annual revenue).

 

This probably comes down to two main factors:

  • Empty labor is a big problem in many offices — essentially, people feel like they have enough time to get anything done in an eight-hour workday, so they procrastinate using things like Facebook
  • On the flip side, smaller blocks of time tend to create more focus, which is why productivity systems like the Pomodoro technique exist

In addition to the direct productivity benefits, there are also side benefits, like boosted happiness (which, in turn, tends to inspire increased productivity), and healthier workers (which means less sick days!).

 

Want to switch?

  • The owner of Tower Paddle Boats suggests starting out with a pilot program. When he first introduced shorter workdays, he introduced it as a “summer work schedule”; when the 90-day trial was successful, they transitioned permanently.
  • Before you do the switch (whether temporarily or permanently), have everyone review their work tasks and schedules and look for opportunities to automate/streamline their tasks.
  • Make sure to post your new work hours in a place where customers/clients can find them.
  • If you don’t want to jump right in to a shorter work week, you can experiment with a flex-time schedule, like the one MIT uses, where people are encouraged to work remotely and to not be “always on.”

 

What science says: The 5 day work week

The five day work week was largely created by similar forces as the eight hour workday, and should be reconsidered with the same scrutiny as the eight hour workday.

While there aren’t yet many scientific studies specifically on a shorter work week and its effect on productivity, we have a lot of individual case studies. When Utah introduced four-day work weeks for state employees, productivity and worker satisfaction went up (they did switch back to a five-day work week after three years, due to resident complaints about access to services on Fridays). For half the year, 37Signals works a four-day work week, and has no corresponding drop in productivity. And Treehouse works four days a week while growing every year.

Notably, these examples all work eight hour workdays four days a week. There aren’t many successful case studies of businesses working drastically fewer hours and fewer days a week — that’s probably just too much disruption to the average work schedule to keep up with client communication and customer service. If you want to work a shorter week, this gives you the option of working a shorter workday or a shorter work-week, depending on what will work best for you and your industry.

 

What will your clients say?

As an agency owner, your first thought is likely, “I could never get away with that — I wouldn’t be able to do it while making my clients happy.” But when I talked to B2B professionals I found that wasn’t necessarily the case. Mark Silver, owner of Heart of Business (a business consulting and coaching firm), has his full-time employees work 20-30 hours/week.

“We decided to do that because we noticed it was hard to be productive beyond 30 hours/week anyway — 6 hours of anything beyond menial labor and you’re cooked. Besides, we all have priorities in our life that go beyond work.”

Do clients push back on that? Nope. “No one has pushed back — we still respond to clients in a timely fashion.”

Similarly, Darren Barefoot of Capulet works a shorter than usual workday (averaging around 5-6 hours and starting the day late, around 1pm local time). He and his wife/business partner have lived in and traveled Europe for the last seven years, while working mostly with North American clients.

It’s never been a problem for clients and many find it a bonus, as the time zones mean that if a client sends an inquiry at the end of their business day, the answer/results are in their inbox by the next morning. In their many years of doing this, only one client has ever declined to work together due to the work schedule, and Darren was unconcerned about it: “That was fine, because if they saw that as a showstopper, then they probably weren’t a good fit for us anyway.”

 

The general consensus? As long as you’re getting your work done on time, it’s just not a big deal.

As an added benefit, many companies have found having a shorter workday/week helps them attract and retain talent. The owner of Treehouse, for example, notes that one of his employees is constantly being wooed by Facebook, and has the same response every time: “Do you work four-day weeks yet?”

Michelle Nickolaisen
Post by Michelle Nickolaisen

Michelle is a freelance business writer based in Richmond, VA, who fills her free time with sci-fi on Netflix or working on one of her many creative side projects.

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