April 29, 2021

In Search of the Perfect Work Week

Something is happening in the world of work, especially as it relates to where that work happens. There are some who desperately want to return to the office. Likewise, there are some who hope never to return. There have been proposed hybrid work situations that are trending towards the norm and likewise, there are scenarios where the work week itself is shortened. No matter the position, the only point agreed upon is that nothing is settled. The ideal work week has been argued since the 40-hour work week was established. Several companies have experimented on the optimum length for productivity and doubtless, more trials are to come spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic. As of now, only the future knows the winner.


In the late 18th century, when companies started to maximize the output of their factories, getting to running them 24/7 was key. For the sake of efficiency, people had to work more. In fact, 10-16-hour days were the norm. This began to change in the 19th century, slowly at first then seemingly all at once. The first domino was Robert Owen, a British man who founded socialism. In 1817, he championed the mantra: “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Although this effort did not catch the momentum needed to go mainstream, there were several Factories Acts that moved the country in that direction.  For instance, The Factories Act of 1847 stipulated that women and children were to be granted a ten hour work day, thus only having to work 60 hours per week.

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Another socialist pushed the effort even further in 1884Tom Mann, a member of the Social Democratic Federation. He formed an “Eight Hour League” for the sole purpose of establishing the 8 hour work day in Britain. His biggest success was getting the unions of Britain to champion the 8-hour work day as one of their primary goals. However, the objective remained out of reach. This was in the UK, the United States had its own challenges.

People were lobbying for a shorter work day in the USA as early as 1791, with workers in Philadelphia striking for a ten hour total work day that would include two hours for meals. The idea of shorter work days took root and proliferated over the years, but still was not law. In fact, the same type of “Eight Hour Leagues” that Tom Mann had formed in the UK was happening in similar fashion. However, the USA implemented a different tact for progress. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that May 1, 1886 would be the first day that an eight hour work day would be made mandatory. This was not settled by federal mandate nor by an agreement with big business, they just declared it and depended on the support of the workers. When May 1, 1886 arrived, the first ever May Day parade was held with 350,000 workers (more or less) walking off their jobs protesting for the eight-hour work day. And despite that notable effort, the 8-hour-work day had yet to become official.

Screen Shot 2021-04-29 at 11.12.30 AMIt wasn’t until 1905 that industries began implementing the eight-hour work day on their own accord. One of the first businesses to implement this was the Ford Motor Company, in 1914, which not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled their worker’s pay in the process.  To the shock of many industries, this resulted in Ford’s productivity off of these same workers, but with fewer hours, actually increasing significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years after implementing this change.  This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter, eight-hour workday as a standard for their employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937 stipulated that workers were to max their hours at 44 hours per week and anything over 40 would require overtime pay. So, it took roughly 150 years to convince all concerned that an 8-hour-work day was best. Go figure

With a few notable exceptions, experiments mostly, the established 8-day / 40-hour work week has been the norm ever since. However, times change, and the Covid pandemic changed times most of all. With so many forced to work from home and now hesitant to return, due to health safety concerns, what will the new work week look like? Business leaders have been mulling the possibilities and plotting the best strategy for their enterprise because truly, there is no one size fits all solution. The break out trend seems to be the hybrid office where some days are spent at home and telecommuting. We discussed the pros and cons of this effort in a recent Tribe TV episode.

The playing field has changed a bit since that video was produced as vaccines have been released en masse and the public has reacted. Newsweek recently reported that, “Employees Balk at End to Remote Work: 'Going Back to the Office Is Stupid.” Here are some notable quotes from that article.

  • While 83 percent of CEOs want employees to return in person, only 10 percent of employees want to come back full time, according to a study by the Best Practice Institute.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans still have not received even one dose and only 20 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. And with variants spreading, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in most states across the country.
  • Meanwhile, more than six in 10 workers believe companies should make getting a vaccine mandatory before employees are allowed back in the office—roughly the same number who fear their employer will relax COVID-19 safety measures too soon.
  • For now, the tug-of-war between employers and workers is still in its early stages. Office occupancy rates remain low at 24 percent nationwide as of late March, according to Kastle Systems, a building security company with customers in more than 2,600 buildings in 138 cities across the U.S.

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A Deloite survey mirrors the worker sentiment cited by Newsweek and paints a more stark deviation of those unwilling to return to the office. To quote “The Telegraph:”

  • Almost one in four workers hope never to set foot in the office again, with 7.5m people keen to permanently work from home every day of the week. At the same time slightly more (28%) are desperate to get back and hope never to have to turn their kitchen or spare bedroom into a home office, according to a new survey by Deloitte.
  • Just over two-fifths (42%) want a balance between the extremes, with at least two days at home each week. Most under-35s find home working challenging, indicating the difficulties involved in a short-term pandemic measure becoming a permanent state of affairs.
  • Split working will pose challenges for managers who need to get used to a long-term change in how to get the best out of their staff.

Screen Shot 2021-04-29 at 11.24.15 AMThese are truly unprecedented times and that is not an understatement. So many variables must be taken into account and while the hybrid office seems to be the way most companies will go, there is still room for experimentation. Pre-pandemic trials of new work weeks had once been the rage among fast moving companies. Could some of those experiments take root and bloom in this new season? It certainly has in New Zealand. World Economic Forum reported on the phenomenon with this:

The New Zealand firm that trialled a four-day working week has now confirmed it will adopt the measure on a permanent basis. The will-writing company Perpetual Guardian carried out an eight week trial earlier this year, giving their 200 or so employees an extra day off every week, while all pay and employment conditions remained unchanged. Academics who studied the trial reported lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction and an improved sense of work-life balance. Critically, they also say workers were 20% more productive… The company expects the bulk of its staff to choose to work a four-day week. But it is still an option, with Barnes stressing that flexibility is key. Staff will be able to come into the office and work normal hours for five hours, if that is their preference. Others will be able to start or finish early to avoid traffic congestion and manage their childcare commitments, while others could opt for compressed hours.

The four-day work week is among the more popular of the working week experiments. Several other companies have used it successfully as a retention tool. For example, CNN reported on Shake Shack and cited CEO Randy Garutti in their 2020 article.   

The company has also been testing out four-day workweeks for its managers. Today, about 30% of its 187 US locations are trying out the schedule.

“Among other things, a four-day workweek helps parents save money on childcare,” explained Garutti. He said he's still deciding whether to expand the test to the remaining stores.

"There's so much to figure out about this. We're not ready to launch it, and who knows where it'll go," Garutti said. “But the goal is not just retention, but more applications." So far, 63% of Shake Shack's job candidates pointed to the shorter workweek as the driving reason they applied, according to the company.

Microsoft Japan was cited by The Guardian for implementing a successful 4-day workweek program. To quote…

For the month of August, Microsoft Japan experimented with a new project called Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, giving its entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row without decreasing pay. The shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%, the company concluded at the end of the trial. As part of the program, the company had also planned to subsidize family vacations for employees up to ¥100,000 or $920…

…In addition to the increased productivity, employees took 25% less time off during the trial and electricity use was down 23% in the office with the additional day off per week. Employees printed 59% fewer pages of paper during the trial. The vast majority of employees – 92% – said they liked the shorter week.

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As wonderful as these results are, some have lobbied for a 3-day workweek. Chief among them, billionaire Carlos Slim Helu. CBC Canada interviewed him and said this…

Mexican magnate Carlos Slim Helu of telecom giant América Móvil told a business conference in Uruguay this weekend he thinks the world needs a "radical change" in the way we approach our working lives.

"This means that people do not retire at 50 or 60 years old," news agency Paraguay.com reported him as saying at the 20th Montevideo Circle meeting, an annual meeting of business leaders and politicians from across Latin America. "People will have to work longer, to 70 or 75 years old, and only work three days a week."

The catch is that sometimes, employees may need and want to work much longer and harder on days when they do work — possibly as much as 11 hours a day, he says.

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As appealing as a 3-day workweek is to some, how does a full-time 15-hour workweek sound? Back in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that we would all be working 15 hour weeks due to breakthroughs in technology and efficiencies. The Conversation asked “Whatever happened to the 15-hour workweek?

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological change and productivity improvements would eventually lead to a 15-hour workweek. But, despite significant productivity gains over the past few decades, we still work 40 hours a week on average.

Keynes’s reasoning was that by producing more with less (also known as being more productive), all of our needs would be met through less work, freeing up more time for leisure. But the data and research since Keynes’s time suggest that companies have kept the benefits of productivity for themselves.

In his own time, Keynes witnessed the rise of automated factories, mass production and the greater use of electricity, steam and coal. He writes of a 40% increase in factory output in the United States from 1919 to 1925. This productivity increase allowed for a higher standard of living and radically transformed the working world. It was not a stretch for Keynes to predict future technologies would do the same thing once more.

In the era of artificial intelligence, could the same expectations be predicted or will history repeat itself with companies prospering without a significant boon to workers? Time will tell. I think it is not unreasonable to expect some advantages for workers who can manage their time so well that they work 15 hour weeks or less, for the same rate of pay, if they can uphold the expected work output. After all, Tim Ferris became famous for his 4-Hour Workweek which endorsed an exodus from the workaholic lifestyle prevalent in western culture for automation, outsourcing and time saving processes like checking email twice a day, using online egg timers to minimize meeting time and authorizing virtual assistants to complete certain tasks.

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Much has been said about reducing the work week, can you imagine a situation where there were no weekends at all? It has happened before and predictably, it was an abject failure. For 11 years, the Soviet Union had no weekends. History.com published a fascinating article recounting the time.

For the urban workforce of the Soviet Union, September 29, 1929, was a Sunday like any other—a day of rest after six days of labor. Sunday was the prize at the finish line: a day’s holiday, where people might see family, attend church or clean their homes. But in the eyes of the Soviet government led by Joseph Stalin, Sundays represented a genuine threat to the whirr and hum of industrial progress. For one day in seven, after all, machines sat silent, productivity slumped to zero and people retreated to comforts thought to be contrary to the revolutionary ideal, like family life or religious practice.

On the following Sunday, no such collective pause for breath took place. Eighty percent of the workforce were told to go to work; 20 percent to stay home. The ordinary seven-day week now had a new bedfellow: the nepreryvka, or “continuous working week.” It was five days long, with days of rest staggered across the week. Now, the Soviet economist and politician Yuri Larin proposed, the machines need never be idle.

The nepreryvka was supposed to revolutionize the concept of labor, set a match to productivity and make religious worship too troublesome to be worth the effort. But it failed on virtually every count. Adjustments were made and in 1931, the cycle was extended to last six days. After 11 years of trial and error, the project was axed in June, 1940. 

It took approximately 150 years of effort to get the average worker from a 10-16 hour workday  to the standard 8-hour day. And while long hours are pretty much normal across the board, the globe is nowhere near working like it used to. In fact, data from the World Economic Forum points out that on average Mexico clocks longer hours than anyone else (43 hours per week). Will Covid reduce those hours? In some cases, most definitely. Will it inspire companies in Mexico (and the world for that matter) to change their culture towards 4-day workweeks, 3-day workweeks or less? Only time will tell and I for one cannot wait to see how it all pans out however, for now, I got to go back to work.


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