Rethinking and Reimagining the Workweek

The notion of the five-day, 40-hour work week appears ingrained as the American standard, from pop culture (such as the classic Dolly Parton song, “9 to 5”) to federal labor law and, of course, in companies across the country. This standard, however, has been followed for less than a century. Its application is far from universal, and its effectiveness is increasingly challenged as the workplace, workers and work itself changes.

History of the 40-Hour Work Week

In 1926 Ford Motor Company became one of the first American companies to adopt a five-day, 40-hour week for its employees. Official explanation at the time was to grant lower-wage workers the luxury of more leisure time, though Henry Ford later admitted the shift intended to boost productivity, since workers were expected to increase their efforts during the shorter time on the job. Also, with more leisure time the employees were more likely to consume the products of their creation.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 set the 44-hour work week as standard across most industries, and amendments reduced this to 40 a few years later.

Arguments Against the Conventional Work Schedule

Requiring all employees to adhere to the same 9-to-5 schedule can negatively impact individual and company-wide productivity.

  • Individual efficiency: People naturally follow different biological rhythms, with some people at their most productive in the morning while others’ energy levels peak at night.
  • Distractions: The office environment where all employees are present on the same schedule provides many more distractions and interruptions.
  • Emphasis on hours worked instead of work accomplished: The 40-hour week puts the focus on the clock rather than the results.
  • Burnout: Following the same routine, day in and day out, leads to mental exhaustion and contributes to burnout. Burnout also results from working much more than 40 hours, which frequently happens in industries where 40 hours are viewed as a minimum.

Alternative Work Schedules

There is no one-size-fits-all schedule and companies seeking an alternative to the traditional work week must evaluate business needs and balance with staff preferences. Options to consider include:

  • Four-day workweek: Instead of five eight-hour days, employees work ten hours for four days.
  • Telecommuting: Technology allows for collaboration, communication and production from remote locations. Working from home has fewer distractions and reduces commuting costs, time and carbon emissions.
  • Flex scheduling: Employees can be permitted to schedule their own hours, working when it’s better for them, as long as the work is accomplished as required.

Instead of holding onto the relic of the 40-hour week out of habit, companies should consider schedules that might make more sense for their employees and for their business.

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