If you’ve ever worked a full-time job, chances are that job had set hours during certain days of the week. It may vary from job to job, but in most developed countries there’s this concept of a standard work week. And it goes like this.
You work five days a week, often Monday through Friday.
You work eight hours a day, usually around 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
You typically don’t work major holiday or overtime. But if you do, you get paid overtime.
That’s seen as a “normal” work week these days. I put “normal” in quotes because what constitutes a normal workday has changed a great deal over the years. But I prefer not to focus on the history of the work week. I just want to ask a simple question about the work week as we currently accept it.
Is the five eight-hour workday schedule really the most effective approach to work?
It’s an honest question and one I think the COVID-19 pandemic has made more relevant. Beyond revealing how much work we can be done remotely and from the comfort of our homes, it also revealed that our concept of a normal work schedule is somewhat skewed. And it might be a good time to re-evaluate our understanding.
Some are already doing that. A number of companies in various parts of the world are starting to experiment with a four-day work week. It doesn’t always entail less work. In some cases, people opt to work four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour days. The duration of the shifts don’t change. It’s just the structure.
And according to the conclusions of multiple studies, the results have been a massive success for everyone involved.
Overall productivity remained unchanged or actually improved.
Worker satisfaction increased, as did overall work/life balance.
The same amount of work got done, even when fewer hours overall were worked.
There were practically no real downsides. People got an extra day off, but were just as productive. They were also happier, overall. Even if you’re a ruthless business tycoon with no sympathy for others whatsoever, these results are encouraging. After all, happier and more fulfilled workers means less turnover and less conflicts overall. Unless your company runs on the tears and suffering of others, that’s generally good for business.
Even in the absence of these studies, I can personally attest to the appeal and the merits of a four-day work week. While I wasn’t lucky enough to have that schedule with any of the full-time jobs I worked, I do know it was a popular option in one particular company.
Since I don’t know if my former employer visits my site, I won’t say their name or their industry. I’ll just say that this company utilized a lot of shift-work. There were some typical nine-to-five shifts, but most varied considerably in order to ensure 24/7 coverage of our operations. I typically worked five days a week, usually 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
However, there was an option for those with kids to work four ten-hour days. The day of the week they got off varied. My supervisor actually encouraged those who used this option to coordinate and decide amongst themselves which day of the week they would take off. Some preferred having Monday off. Some preferred having Friday off. One even preferred having Tuesdays off.
It was probably the most popular shift, but one that wasn’t widely adopted. It was always framed as a shift reserved for those with young children who needed an extra day to take care of doctor’s appointments, personal matters, and what not.
Personally, I would’ve definitely preferred working four ten-hour days. Even if it meant those four days were longer, I would’ve gladly worked that time in exchange for a longer weekend. It would’ve made a lot of things easier, especially when I was young and just out of college. Even today, it would make a lot of things easier. An extra day would give me more time to rest, run errands, work out, and work on my personal life.
I suspect many feel the same way. Just think about how excited/relieved you are every time you have a long weekend to look forward to. But honestly, is a three-day weekend really that long? It’s still less than half of the week. And can you honestly say you get less done on a shorter work week?
Now, I understand that not all work is the same. There are certain jobs for which a four-day work week just isn’t practical. By the same token, there are also types of work for which a five-day work week isn’t practical, either. We just still use that schedule because it’s considered standard and “normal.” We’re so used to it that we don’t even question it.
But we should. The results of the studies I mentioned imply that there are better ways to get just as much work done with less time in a manner that is just as productive, if not more so. So why not embrace that?
I suspect a part of it has to do with how the five-day, 40-hour work week is engrained in a lot of labor laws. That is not a trivial detail that we can just overlook. But laws can be changed. And in this case, there’s a better and more efficient option available.
In a world with so many diverse people and so many diverse forms of work, it makes sense to be flexible. If a shorter work week means equal or greater amounts of efficiency, then the only thing stopping us is outdated assumptions about what constitutes “full-time work.”
I sincerely hope that changes in the coming years, especially as people continue to realize the value of a good work/life balance. Just because we’ve been structuring our jobs a certain way for decades doesn’t mean we should keep doing it that way. If a four-day work week is better by every measure, then we’re only making our jobs more miserable by clinging to outdated practices.