Are 6 Hour Working Days the Future?

1 Jul 2016

Pros:

  • Better work-life balance
  • Health benefits from less stress
  • Can increase productivity and therefore profits
  • Sick leave decreases
  • Happier staff means lower staff turnover. Thus the company saves money on finding, hiring and retaining employees

Cons:

  • Communication, internally and externally can be slower

History vs Science

During the industrial revolution, working 10 to 16 hours a day was the norm. Although some had campaigned for fewer working hours such as Robert Owen (who promoted “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,”) it wasn’t until 1914 that companies began adopting 8 hour days as the norm. One of the first businesses to implement the 8 hour day was the Ford Motor Company  who demonstrated, to the shock of many, that productivity of workers and profit margins increased with the shorter work day.

So actually, the reason we work 8 hours a day isn’t based on science, it’s based on history, and therefore arguably irrelevant in todays creative economy. If you were to take into account the science of productivity, it has been shown that generally people can only work at a high performance levels for 90 to 120 minutes before a recharging session of 20 to 30 minutes is needed in order to once again work at a high performance level for another 90 to 120 minutes. Therefore, really, instead of thinking “what can I get done in an 8 hour day?” You should really be thinking, “what can I get done in the next 90 minutes.”

There has been a lot of scientific research into productivity. From this research emerged 4 key tips:

  1. Manually increase the relevance of a task – i.e. introduce personal deadlines and rewards.
  2. Split your day into 90 minute windows – as discussed above and assign a task to each slot.
  3. Plan to actually rest – get away from your desk, read, get a snack etc.
  4. Allow zero notifications – remove all notifications and access to social media, as it will break your focus.

The idea of shorter working days is nothing new. In the 1930s economist John Maynard Keynes suggested that by 2030 we would all be enjoying 15 hour working weeks and reaping the benefits from ever-improving technology.

Keynes estimated that the advancements of technology would give humans more leisure time – and he hit the nail on the head there – as with more tasks being automated by artificial intelligence, we can expect the future to consist of shorter working days and long weekends.

The Logistics

So now we know it is scientifically sound to work shorter days, how can we actually implement this in the real world? 

For the best examples of implementation we must look to Sweden.

Background AB, a digital production company in Sweden, launched the 6 hour day initiative in September 2015 (part of a 9 month trial). While salaries have remained the same, staff members are at their desks from 8:30 until 11:30, take an hour for lunch and then work from 12:30 until 15:30. They ask their employees to stay away from social media in the office and leave any personal calls or emails until the end of the day.

Toyota’s service centre, based on the west coast of Sweden, have been running the initiative for over a decade and swears by it’s ability to increase profits. 

In general, Swedish businesses are known for seeing the link between health and profitability. Across Sweden, only around 1% of employees work more than 50 hours a week, one of the lowest rates in the OECD, where 13% is the average. By law, Swedes are given 25 vacation days, with many large firms typically offering more. Parents get 480 days of paid parental leave to split between them.

In general most offices are empty after 5pm.

This can even extend to the health and medical sector in Sweden, whereby whole hospital departments have switched to the initiative over the past few months. An elderly care home in West Sweden switched 80 of it’s nurses to 6 hour days in February 2015 as part of a two-year controlled trial. So far, less sick leave is being taken, the nurses have reported they are less stressed and patient care appears to have improved. Early indicators appear to be showing that quality of work is increasing. 

However there is still a long way to go until the six hour day becomes the norm in Sweden and there is still the question whether shorter work days can work in all industries.