HR Management & Compliance

Would a 6-Hour Workday Be Better?

Some believe that the 8-hour workday is an arbitrary number of hours to work—one that needs adjusting. A number of companies in Sweden are switching to the 6-hour workday. But will it work? If so, would it work here?

When we think about the standard workday in the United States, the 8-hour norm actually is a relatively recent phenomenon. It didn’t become truly standard until Henry Ford made it the norm in Ford factories. However, the push for a shorter workday started much earlier—back in the mid-1800s, as a product of the Industrial Revolution.

Companies have always sought to maximize productivity, and it used to be the norm to do so by expecting employees to work as many hours as possible—even up to 16 hours as a standard workday or 100 or more hours in a workweek. Today it seems obvious that this is not a sustainable model—no one remains productive for that many hours straight. But, it took many years and a few highly-visible organizational leaders to recognize and promote the idea of shorter workdays. They promoted the idea that working fewer hours could be done without sacrificing productivity because productivity over such a long period (16 hours) is greatly diminished anyway.

Now, we are perhaps again at a tipping point. An 8-hour workday was not set based on scientific evidence of maximized productivity. It has been popularized starting with Henry Ford, but that doesn’t mean it’s the magical number of ideal productivity. Could we take this theory further? What is the ideal number of hours to work in a day to truly maximize efficiency? In the news lately, Sweden has been asking that very question. Many organizations there are experimenting with a 6-hour workday. Let’s take a look at the rationale behind this move.

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Rationale Behind a 6-Hour Workday

For the companies in Sweden making the move to a 6-hour workday, the key rationale here is that people aren’t actually productive for a full 8 hours as it is, so there might not actually be a productivity loss by reducing total hours worked if done properly.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In short, this tells us that if we have 8 hours to get our work done for the day, we will take 8 hours to do it—even if it would not require that much time. As such, if we have 6 hours, we might still be able to get everything done—we would just do things more efficiently.

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Put another way, most workers are not 100% efficient all day. Some estimates indicate that employers lose a couple hours of productivity every day to miscellaneous things that waste employee time. By shortening the workday, it shortens the amount of time that the employee has to remain focused on a specific task—which means there is less time available to waste. This heightens the sense of urgency to get things done (most of us are more efficient when a deadline approaches!) and allows productivity to not take the hit you’d imagine.

In fact, productivity is really the key here. Most of us intuitively know that we can create better output when we have high energy, and we can get more done in a short timeframe if we are at our most efficient. In other words, it’s the level of efficiency that drives productivity, not simply the hours worked, and increasing hours can actually decrease how efficient we are as our energy levels decrease. The theory goes, we should manage productivity by creating an environment where employees work when they have the highest energy levels, and doing so would maximize productivity, even while it reduces total hours worked. Win-win!

Tomorrow we’ll discuss some of the benefits of a shortened workday, plus an introduction to a free, interactive webcast, Metrics that Matter for Managing Employees sponsored by Kronos.