shorter workweek

Would you consider a shorter workweek?

“Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is home because she figured out a faster way.” — Jason Fried

It’s no surprise that the world is changing. Is it time to start thinking about how we collectively labor? It’s extremely difficult to find great new employees, it’s becoming harder to keep them, and employee engagement continues to be very low (less than 20 percent from a global perspective, according to Gallup).

That said, there are some interesting things going on in terms of people testing the waters with the historic, standard, 40-hour workweek. Is there a possibility that a different approach might make a positive impact on your employees and environment?

Here are some fun facts to consider:

  • Henry Ford was the first major employer to switch to a 40-hour workweek back in 1926. Prior to that, his employees (along with everyone else) worked eight hours a day, six days a week.
  • Ford found that his workers were MORE productive in 40 hours than they had been at 48 hours … which was a big driver for others to follow that change.
  • In 1940, Congress amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to make the 40-hour workweek law (requiring overtime for anything over 40 hours a week).
  • Interestingly, Ford also was the pioneer for eight-hour workdays, changing his salary structure to $5 per eight-hour day in 1914 vs. $2.34 per nine-hour day before that. Again, productivity went up.
  • Studies have repeatedly shown that working more than 40 hours a week leads to reduced productivity, negative impacts on health, engagement and satisfaction … yet a 2014 Gallup study found that 50 percent of U.S. workers averaged more than 40 hours a week (47, to be precise).
  • 80 percent of U.S. workers put in substantial hours outside of the standard workweek at the office.

Arguably, the current system we have is broken. Straight-up 40 hours a week on the clock made a lot more sense when you physically had to be somewhere specific to work. And when you weren’t electronically tethered to the job 24/7 – that means it’s likely that you are truly never “off” work.

What are the alternatives?

It turns out there have been some interesting experiments in the last few years that might give you some ideas on alternatives. The most recent one that made a splash is a New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, that ran a two-month monitored trial of cutting everyone back to a four-day workweek (32 hours expected vs. 40).

Not surprisingly, the employees reported a significant increase in their work-life balance, reduced stress and better engagement. What might be more surprising is that the company also saw improved productivity – to the extent that the CEO is working with the board of directors to make the change permanent. His quote on the matter is pretty compelling:

“What happens is you get a motivated, energized, stimulated, loyal workforce.” — Perpetual Guardian CEO Andrew Barnes

Another example from a few years ago is a California company that cut back to a five-hour workday without reducing the pay. This company also experienced higher productivity and greatly reduced employee turnover.

But what about the real world?

Of course those examples are in New Zealand and California (a company that sells surf gear …) — not exactly the real world that most of us live in. Most of the business owners that I know would be quick to point out that those kinds of different work environments would never work in their industry, business or situation.

Of course, those same business owners also are struggling to find great people, keep the great people they have and find new ways to get more done.

Maybe a switch to a four-day workweek is too extreme. But can you afford to stick with the status quo and hope that it all works out? That we’ll somehow be going back to the “normal” way of doing business from 10 or 20 years ago?

A shorter workweek may not be a practical possibility – but is it time to at least starting to think about things in a different way?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Shawn Kinkade, Kansas City Business Coach