In the 1860s, unions began to push for employees to work a 40-hour workweek (eight hours a day and a five-day workweek.) One of the early large U.S. manufacturers to support this concept was the Ford Motor Company in 1914. Henry Ford, a pioneer in efficient manufacturing, believed that working fewer hours made people better workers. He also believed that people with more leisure time would be more likely to buy his cars. With the support of a company like Ford, more companies starting to adopt the policy, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the government got involved.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act that initially limited the workweek to 44 hours, and it was eventually lowered to 40 hours by 1940. But is the 40-hour week that was developed in 1940 still ideal for today’s workplace?  

(Image of US Census office in 1940)

What’s going on today?

According to a 2016 study by Workfront, U.S. office workers spend only 39% of their time on their primary job duties. The rest of the time is spent on meetings, random emails, socializing, and more. Research on productivity has even shown that people have a tough time concentrating for more than 20 minutes at a time. In the last few years, some tech businesses have been testing a four-day workweek concept, including Amazon, Deloitte, and Google. In 2016, Amazon launched a program to experiment with a 30-hour workweek for some employees. These employees will receive a salary of 75 percent of a full-time worker but the same employee benefits package. Clothing company Uniqlo is innovating in a different way: Their 10,000 employees have the option of working four 10-hour days—this is called a compressed workweek and gives people more days off of work but longer days.

When you add flextime and telecommuting to the mix, it’s clear that companies are experimenting more and more with non-traditional work schedules.

What do real employers think? We asked a few and CEOs and HR 

Jacob Dayan
CEO and Co-Founder
Community Tax – 100 Employees

Working 40 Hours on the industry’s schedule—40 hours from 9am-5pm every day can be a hindrance to your company in 2018. The number of hours and the time of the day that your staff should work is highly dependent on your specific industry. For example, if your customers are only calling on you after traditional work hours, it is very important that your staff shifts the way they work to accommodate this. Nothing is more frustrating as a consumer than not being able to get ahold of a company. Especially in the digital world, or the “age of convenience” as I like to say, it may be important to work 40 hours, but the time of day may have to shift to better serve your customer base.

Samar Birwadker
Founder & CEO
Good&Co – 65 employees

At Good&Co, I found that by opening up alternative working options to the traditional nine-to-five 40-hour workweek and giving employees a flexible schedule that works around their personal needs—varying start times, an option to work from home when needed and approved by managers, breaks for fitness classes or doctor appointments, etc.—we have alleviated many common pains associated with the nine-to-five schedule. It has also increased the overall quality of productivity of our employees.

This more-flexible schedule allows employees to be productive when they feel most alert (some function better as night owls, while some are conventional early birds), creating a great work-life balance based on individual preference. Furthermore, I have found that employees are more invested in the company’s growth and in tune with their coworkers’ needs when the company shows interest in their improved quality of life. We, of course, have some meetings that are required so that the teams stay on track, but overall, people have been conscious of coworker schedules and sensitive to the importance of each other’s time away from work, and there haven’t been any issues! We’re a staff of just over 65 with offices in SF, Chicago, Boston, and London.

Fred Schebesta
CEO & Co-Founder
finder.com – 250 Employees

Here at finder, we certainly don’t prescribe the 40-hour workweek. We empower and trust our crew to do and be their very best; sometimes that means working more than 40 hours, and sometimes less. We find that giving people this flexibility has an extremely positive impact on productivity.

We also make it our mission to only hire people who are passionate and driven to master their craft. We encourage the pursuit of passion projects, whether those are related to what we do at finder, or not, in office hours or out.

We do, however, sometimes have a 40-hour day—our annual Hack Day. Running for the past three years, Hack Day is a global initiative that takes place over a 41-hour period. People team up with colleagues across the world to brainstorm, develop, and launch innovations that they believe will move our business forward. People aren’t obligated to take part, but we find the vast majority do and get laser-focused on creating incredible pieces of work. Despite having only run for three years so far, we’ve already seen a number of ideas implemented as a result.

Hiring people who love what they do and removing the constraints of a typical 9-5 / 40-hour workweek has been a winning formula that has helped us grow to over 40 countries worldwide.

John Crowley (UK perspective)
Editor
People HR

Something that has always fascinated me about the idea of a “40-hour workweek,” is that the most productive countries in the world work significantly less than 40 hours per week on average.

For example, a 2015 report by TIME states that the most productive country in the world on a per-hour basis, Luxembourg, works only 29 hours per week. The same report states that the country with the most output in the world, the United States, works on average 33.6 hours per week.

Of the 35 countries listed in TIME’s report, only two of them averaged more than 40 hours per week. Korea, averaging 40.7, was ranked #30. Mexico, averaging 41.2, was ranked #35 (last place).

Companies could certainly find that they get more value from their employees by paying a decent wage for fewer hours. But as with anything, it depends on various factors. The nature of the business, the type of work being undertaken, and the type of people being employed.

Some companies might find a trial run helpful. For example, put a department of salaried employees down to 30 hours, and hire extra people to make up the ‘time gap.’ Once new employees have learned their job, measure that team’s output compared with its running costs.

Nate Masterson
Director of HR
Maple Holistics

While I think that the 40-hour workweek is still a tried-and-trusted routine for most businesses and employees in terms of work-to-productivity, I do think that there are a lot of industries which would actually benefit from having a more flexible workweek (that is, still a 40-hour workweek, just broken up into a more flexible time schedule), or simply reducing the amount of time that employees have to spend at the office and allowing them to focus on getting the necessary tasks done on time and more efficiently.

But this really depends on the nature and culture of your business or company in particular, as well as the type of work or industry you’re based in. For instance, jobs based in the creative industry or that are reliant on creative techniques as their primary source of income would definitely benefit from allowing their employees a more-flexible workweek. By giving people a set of tasks or responsibilities to have completed by a certain time, you can let workers come in and out of the office or work from home whenever it suits them—so long as you can ensure that they’re easily contactable and that they accomplish the goal within a certain period of time, you’ll have no problems.

This is also a good way to weed out slackers, as it takes a great deal of dedication to balance the freedom of not being chained to a 40-hour workweek and still ensure that you get your work done up to standard and on time. So you’re more likely to have a strong and determined crew rather than people who just go through the motions to get their paychecks. I think this opens up to a totally different point that may apply to a variety of sectors as well, which is determining whether the 40-hour workweek is really more efficient or, rather, promotes the most efficiency. The main issue with a fixed 40-hour workweek is that not everyone works the same.

While one employee may be 100% set to follow the same schedule every day of the week, others may be more efficient earlier in the morning, and prefer having more time to themselves in the afternoon—some may prefer it the other way around. Understanding how to get the best out of your employees is key to getting the best results for your business as a whole. Without having a workweek that suits their personalities or working preferences, you’re missing out on their full potential, which could have a big impact on your business’s overall performance.

Companies’ approach to the 40-hour workweek vary substantially based on many factors. If you haven’t thought about your approach to hours, now might be a good time. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index survey of employees in the U.S. finds that 57 percent of millennials (employees born between 1980 and 1996) consider work-life balance and wellbeing very important to them when it comes to choosing a job.

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