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Is the 5-Hour Workday the Answer to All Our Problems?

There are many new concepts and theories out there today that promote an improved work-life balance for employees, the five-hour workday being one of the most compelling.

In the classic song “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton sings, “they got you where they want you, there's a better life and you think about it, don't you?” We all think about it, don’t we? Less work, better pay, less work, more play. The song was a huge hit, as was the hilarious movie by the same name, and became a banner song for people in the daily grind. Behind all the jokes and schemes and cubicles, the heart of the film turns that grind on its head to promote a healthier, happier workplace - what we call today the “work-life balance.” What can employers do, in the words of Ms. Parton, to give “a better life” to their employees? What is a company’s responsibility for creating a happier company culture? Can drastic changes in the workday lead to drastic changes in productivity, and ultimately, greater profit margins? There are many new concepts and theories out there today that promote an improved work-life balance for employees, so let’s take a look at one in particular that’s making the rounds in the workday revolution conversation: The Five Hour Workday.  

“9 to 5, what a way to make a living…”

For decades, the traditional American workday is from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Some may have short breaks sprinkled throughout the day, and some do not. This framework began in the 1920’s with the Ford Motor Company in an attempt to improve factory conditions, and in 1938, it was put into law through the Fair Labor Standards Act. While the act only covered about one-fifth of the country’s labor pool, it banned oppressive child labor, set the minimum hourly wage at 25 cents, and stated that the maximum number of hours one could work per week was 44 hours. This last standard, however, has been perpetuated in hourly and salaried positions for more than eighty years. With an emphasis on hours work over productivity, this system has been resistant to change despite the data that indicates the 8-hour workday does not contribute to effective or increased productivity. In a study published in June of this year, the shortened workday was analyzed in Iceland and found that reducing work hours maintained, and in some instances even increased, overall productivity.

“9 to 5, for service and devotion…”

In 2016, Stephan Aarstol published his book, The Five Hour Workday, about an experiment his company, Tower Paddle Boards, conducted when they implemented a five-hour workday without reducing salaries. In an effort to improve the culture of the company and foster healthy living for its employees, the company adopted an 8:00am to 1:00pm workday, which shortened the day by three hours, and eliminated the lunch break. In researching productivity, Aarstol found that the hours employees worked did not correlate to the quantity or quality of their output. “Just because you’re at your desk for eight hours, doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Even the best employees probably only accomplish two to three hours of actual work” (ThriveGlobal). The five-hour day is about managing human energy more efficiently by working in bursts over a shorter period of time. The immediate results of the new policy included increased profits, increased happiness in employees, and an overall improvement in company culture.

  • increased focus on tasks - research has shown that in an eight-hour day, employees are only productive for up to four of those hours. A study out of Ohio in 2016 estimated that the average worker is only productive for up to three hours per day (Ohio).
  • enhanced productivity - employees focus more on high value activities rather than meaningless tasks that occupy too much time.
  • happier and healthier lifestyles - employees are able to take full advantage of the benefits associated with the shortened workday, such as spending more time with family, exercising, pursuing hobbies, enrolling in educational programs, and so on.
  • overall improved workplace culture - happier employees come to work with more positivity and energy that is felt throughout the entire organization.
  • distractions are limited - meetings become more intentional and, and a result, are shorter and less frequent. In addition, non-work contact, like personal calls and texts, were found to be reduced during work hours.
  • reduced absences - due to healthier lifestyles, employees are less likely to become sick and miss work. And with more time in their day, they’re able to schedule other responsibilities and obligations outside of working hours.
  • improved retention - Tower Paddle Boards noted increased retention rates after implementing the five-hour workday due to happier employees and a more positive working culture.


The benefits are clear and abundant, and if this is something that you may consider for your organization, there were a few important components that should be acknowledged:

  • employees’ salaries / hourly wages should go unchanged - there is no reduction in salary or hourly wages, as the focus is not on hours worked, but productivity.
  • employees are available only during working hours - the “always available” construct is abandoned. Employees are discouraged from taking work calls during off-hours, and work email on personal phones is discouraged.
  • remain flexible and work longer hours when needed - the shortened workday is not a hard and fast rule. The reality is that there will be times when a longer workday is required due to higher volume. Be sure to communicate this with the team from the outset.

 

“9 to 5, they got you where they want you…”

 

There are, however, potential cons to the five-hour workday. Aarstol noted the following throughout Tower Paddle Boards’ experiment:

  • While increasing focus can help boost productivity, some workers felt expectations were higher to complete tasks within the new, tighter schedule. For example, tasks that used to take thirty minutes, such as creating a spreadsheet, now had to be done in half the time. 
  • The narrow room for error in this environment generated a degree of resentment among some employees.
  • Spending less time at work with other employees can lead to a more distant, less collaborative workforce, as reduced social time leads to less employee bonding.
  • While the five-hour workday can be a great recruitment tool, more time is required to figure out which candidates applied because they were a good fit, and which ones applied only to enjoy a shortened workday. 


It was these adverse effects that led Aarstol and Tower Paddle Boats to eventually limit the five-hour workday to only four months per year during the summer months, attributing its early success in part to the ‘all-in’ sentiment associated with most startups.


There’s no “one size fits all” solution to improving work-life balance and combatting recent workplace trends that can result in overworked employees and a stressful work environment; however, the five-hour workday is a compelling and innovative approach that’s sure to gain more traction in the coming decades.

 

 “Working 8 to 1, what a way to make a living…..”
Peter Lesser

Peter is a recent MBA graduate of Northeastern University with a vast, diverse background in brand management, innovation, design and more. Prior to graduate school, he began his career in New York City as a freelance brand consultant and multimedia producer for tech startups. Over time, he shifted into the hospitality industry, co-founding his own restaurant consultancy that worked with new and struggling enterprises. In 2017, he returned to Boston to pursue his MBA with a focus in corporate innovation. Peter is a lifelong musician and adventurer. When not working, you can find him playing music, hiking deep into the mountains, or watching his favorite TV shows with his partner in Boston, MA.

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