The 8-hour work day seems to be one of those things that is in place because it’s the way things have been for so long. Of course, there are some lines of work that might require 9 to 5 hours, but in a work culture that is moving away from the industrial age to the information age, I think it’s time to recognize that the 8-hour work day might not be the best option anymore for many teams.
The reason we have 8-hour work days to begin with is, in fact, a human rights victory. When late 18th century factories started to maximize their output, they began running on a non-stop basis. As a result, people had to work more, somewhere between 10-16 hours a day. In fact, in 1890, in the U.S., a full-time manufacturing employee worked an average of 100 hours a week. Forget about work-life balance! Of course, these long days were simply not sustainable for factory workers.
That’s when Robert Owen came into the picture. His now famous slogan was "Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
From Rising Tide
The 8-hour work day became a key demand for labour unions, and workers fought for it ardently, and many lost their lives in this fight (see the Haymarket massacre).
So if the right to 8-hour work days was so valiantly fought for, then why are we questioning it now?
Well, the 8-hour work day is in fact arbitrary. It is what worked well at that time, for factory workers. I believe Buffer’s Leo Wildrich worded this well in his article “The origin of the 8 hour work day and why we should rethink it”:
“The reason we work 8 hours a day, isn't scientific or much thought out. It's purely a century old norm for running factories most efficiently.”
“Running factories most efficiently” should be what stands out in our consideration of the 8-hour work day. Starting in the 1950s, there was a shift from manual labor to what we now call ‘knowledge work.’ In fact, anywhere from 25% to 50% of all jobs require people to create and share knowledge. So unless you are running a factory, you should seriously reconsider whether the 9 to 5 schedule is working for your team.
Can anybody be productive for 8 hours a day? Let’s be honest here. Surveys show that 90% of workers waste time at the office one way or another. Most of them spend this time online. And 52% of workers say they would still use their personal devices at work to access non-work related websites if their employers blocked those sites.
But it’s not just about ways people waste time at work. In fact, many occupy themselves with busy work - work that just makes them look and feel busy until the clock shows the day is over. When people are given 8 hours to work with, they will often find ways to fill that time and call it work - and this is often the reason so many promising businesses are run into the ground.
The 8-hour workday is no doubt a creativity stifler. There are several reasons for this. Initially, the 8-hour workday was meant for labour jobs, many of which did not require creativity.
Many, if not most, offices are not conducive to creative thinking. And it’s no secret that while some companies genuinely value creativity, others talk a lot about it, but are so risk averse that they actually discourage innovation.
Rethinking the work day in terms of workers’ creative capacities instead of the number of hours they work can allow companies to tap into the best work that each individual can offer. And it’s even possible that employees may work more than 8 hours when they are allowed to define the structure that works best for them.
I think there can be little debate on the happiness of 9 to 5ers, or rather lack thereof. That’s why things like “It’s hump day, we’re almost there!” and “TGIF” have entered our vocabulary. Most people who work 9 to 5 live for the weekend - they anticipate that little oasis of 48 hours of freedom.
It’s surprising that more companies don’t wonder how much of their employees’ potential is really reached, when they are constantly watching the clock for the day’s end. Once again, it’s worth mentioning the amount of busywork that this end-of-the-day or end-of-the-week anticipation is creating. The 8-hour work day seems to be something that most people try to escape from, rather than look forward to.
The daily commute
Even though most people find ways to make their commute more productive, I doubt that a one hour commute twice a day, every day, makes for productive workers. When you start your day spending an hour (if you’re lucky!) in an environment that simply irritates you (traffic, crowded public transportation, etc.), your work performance can suffer significantly.
This limits employees’ ability to work on themselves and other projects that are important to them, which is undeniably something necessary if they are to put their best selves in the work they do for your company.
Alternatives to the 8-hour work day
If the 8-hour work day doesn’t work anymore, then what can it be replaced with? Surely, the 9 to 5 work day has been the status quo for so long, that it can be intimidating to even begin thinking about implementing any alternatives.
Your alternatives will definitely depend on your team members and on the scope of the work they do. It will also depend on what you are comfortable with as your team’s leader. If you’re really confident in your team, you can give them the option to choose between a few different alternatives. Here are some of them:
- Flexible work schedule: team members choose when to do their work, and where.
- Flexible schedule with a core work period, when team members are expected to be at work.
- Schedule the work day around four or five 90-minute work blocks followed by 20-30 minute break periods.
- Compressed work week: dividing the week into four days, possibly with 9 hours per day.
- Expanded work week: dividing the work week into six days, with fewer expected hours each day.
You might also consider allowing different team members to choose their own alternative for what allows them to work best. It’s up to you. Whatever you choose depends on whether you care more about the results of your team members, or the number of face time they put in.
Is the 8-hour work day right for YOUR team? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.