Posted by: bluesyemre | July 25, 2022

The case for a shorter workday

There’s a lot of talk about four-day workweeks – but could shorter workdays be a better approach?

The focus on worker wellness and company productivity during the pandemic has some employers toying with new approaches to the workweek as we know it. Much is being made of the four-day workweek, but while three-day weekends are nice, condensing five days of work into four can prove stressful for some workers and their employers – or even be considered non-viable entirely. There may be other alternatives, however.

Some organisational psychologists suggest shortening the workday. Wrapping up in a shorter span of time – such as six hours rather than eight – could prove a practical solution for more types of businesses, and go a long way towards improving the lives of workers, too. “There are businesses that do need to make themselves available five days a week,” says Celeste Headlee, author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving . “And for those businesses, it may be easier and more convenient to shorten the workday.”

In theory, a shortened workday may seem fanciful – after all, employers want to get as much of workers’ time as they can, and “the idea of the eight-hour day is so ingrained in industrialised society”, says Headlee. Yet there are powerful arguments to be made for the shorter workday linked to increased worker wellbeing and potentially heightened productivity. It may be that, contrary to entrenched norms, employees could be working more efficiently and with better focus if they went home sooner.

‘It’s a benefit for prioritisation’

Eight-hour workdays are standard for many industries – and this structure is hard to shake, says Adam Grant, a professor of organisational psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “Status-quo bias is real. People often take for granted the default that they’ve been raised with. Everyone they knew worked five days a week, and worked eight-hour days. It seems like it’s an inevitability,” he says.

Employers also play a part in the perpetuation of this workday structure, he argues, saying the lack of evolution is a “failure of imagination”. “Instead of actually measuring people’s results, it’s nice and simple to count the number of hours that they’re working, and assume that more is better. That’s an assumption that needs to be shattered.”

Norway and Denmark have workweeks shorter than 40 hours, and are respectively the second- and seventh-most productive countries in the world

Headlee agrees an eight-hour workday isn’t the best format for workers. “Cognitively, we really only have a limited amount of focus time per day,” she says. “When you are trying to force your brain to focus outside of that window, you’re going to see really diminishing returns, and end up in burnout. You’re going to end up making more errors, you will be less innovative, you’ll miss stuff. And that makes you less efficient.”

Indeed, studies show working longer does not necessarily correlate to greater productivity in general. Research from Stanford University has indicated there’s an upper limit to productivity: worker output begins to fall sharply after about 48 hours. And other experts suggest that optimal working-hour number could be even lower, depending on the type of work – some positing it could be as few as 35 hours per week or six hours per day, putting employees well below an eight-hour workday. Norway and Denmark have workweeks shorter than 40 hours, and are respectively the second- and seventh-most productive countries in the world.

After all, employees need breaks during long stints at their desks – which means even the most productive workers aren’t spending every moment toiling away on business tasks. A survey of nearly 2,000 workers in the UK showed that on average, people only really feel productive for about half the workday. Shortening it, then, could motivate them to increase that window. By working fewer hours, rather than doing a combination of working and wasting time for eight, workers could be even more productive.

Increased productivity could also stem from better worker morale and physical health, borne from more work-life balance with shorter workdays. That was the case for nurses in an assisted-living facility in Sweden, where a two-year experiment shortened the workday to six hours. The nurses reported being happier employees who took much less sick leave, which enabled them to organise 85% more activities with the residents.  

It makes sense, says Grant, that a condensed schedule would result in increased productivity. “It’s a benefit for prioritisation,” he says. “When you have less time, you start to focus on the things that really matter. That might mean managers assigning less busywork, and it might mean fewer frivolous meetings.”

With shorter days, workers may be more inclined to do effective, efficient work instead of wasting time or taking on busywork to fill an eight-hour mandate (Credit: Getty Images)

As a result, many workers’ efficiency may increase, while their mistakes decrease. “In a world where all of us are capable of being distracted by full range of priorities, a shorter workday is more likely to be a workday, as opposed to work and a whole bunch of other things that are on my mind,” says Grant. “If you think about hospitals, people doing software engineering or accounting work, for example, where attention to detail is important, I would also expect that a shorter workday would reduce errors.”

Potential pitfalls

While there are clear benefits of a shortened workday, Grant says this doesn’t mean there’s nothing that could go wrong.

First, he says, there’s no guarantee every worker will be equally productive during a shorter day, especially for less committed workers. But if people do shirk their responsibilities, he adds, “that’s a failure of management. If you cannot trust your workforce to be as productive doing a little bit less work, then you either failed at hiring, or at job design or at leadership”.

A shorter workday could also complicate things, says Headlee, for multinational companies in some industries, since a shorter workday could cut down the overlap among time zones. Additionally, there may be hidden costs to employers; for instance, in the Swedish study, the facility had to hire more nurses to make up for the shortened hours. (It’s important to note, however, that a business in a 24-hour industry, such as healthcare, has different staffing needs, so knowledge-work industries may find their costs impacted differently.)

Perhaps most importantly, though, there’s also a danger that shortening the workday won’t actually change how much people work; as they do with eight-hour days, employees may continue to crack on with outside their standard hours. In other words, says Headlee, if companies are going to let people off early, it’s important to make sure they’re actually not working extra time, as is standard in many jobs.

A dream or a reality?

Despite pitfalls, however, a shift to shorter working hours could be closer to reality than it once was. In the wake of the pandemic, some employers are activelyre-thinking – and even challenging – the work status quo. Many companies have decided to allow new working patterns, such as asynchronous communication, or remote working, where they can’t necessarily see productivity in the same way.

The four-day workweek isn’t a fit for everyone. So, for companies reluctant to close for a whole extra day every week, shorter workdays may be an “easier sell”

And a particularly significant development is the uptake of the four-day workweek; while not hugely widespread ­– and still in test mode within many countries and companies ­– it’s become an increasingly popular talking point for how to re-think the way people work in a changed world. However, the four-day workweek isn’t a fit for everyone. So, for companies reluctant to close for a whole extra day every week, shorter workdays may be an “easier sell”, says Grant.

There’s one group in particular, adds Grant, that would undoubtably benefit in a big way from a shorter day: working parents. He believes the fact that, in much of the world, the workday ends two hours after school is problematic: “The havoc that wreaks for parents who are trying to manage childcare is not to be understated. It’s one of the most challenging and stressful experiences that people go through in work-life, and there’s a big opportunity to try to create better alignment there.” 

It remains to be seen how many companies think a shortened workday is viable. But for those who make the move, Grant says there could be an immediate pay-off. He believes workers who switch to a shorter schedule will see benefits right away – and their companies will, too.

“Most people who are given an opportunity to work a shorter day are going to take that as a tremendous benefit,” he says. “They’re going to be grateful for it. It’s going to build more loyalty. And then their motivation goes up. They will work harder in the time they have, and they will work smarter in those hours.”

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