Company Culture Employee Experience
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40-hour work week: The history and evolution

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Sophia Lee

Writer, Culture Amp

A 40-hour work week is the accepted standard in today’s workplace. But where did this concept originate? And is it the most effective model for productivity and employee engagement? Fortunately, there’s a growing amount of information being made available on this topic. In this article, we map out the evolution of the 40-hour work week and share key research findings of the efficiency of this approach.

The history of the 40-hour work week

Believe it or not, the makings of the 40-hour work week started in the 19th century. Below is a timeline of the key dates that led to the work standards we’re familiar with today.

  • 1817: After the Industrial Revolution, activists and labor union groups advocated for better working conditions. People were working 80 to 100 hour weeks during this time.
  • 1866: The National Labor Union asked Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. While the law wasn’t passed, it increased public support for the change.
  • 1869: President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation to guarantee eight-hour workdays for government employees. Grant's decision encouraged private-sector workers to push for the same rights. 
  • 1886: The Illinois Legislature passed a law mandating eight-hour work days. Many employers refused to cooperate, which led to a massive worker strike in Chicago, where there was a bomb that killed at least 12 people. The aftermath is known as the Haymarket Riot and is now commemorated on May 1 as a public holiday in many countries.
  • 1926: Henry Ford popularized the 40-hour work week after he discovered through his research that working more yielded only a small increase in productivity that lasted a short period of time. 
  • 1938: Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime to all employees who worked more than 44 hours a week. They amended the act two years later to reduce the work week to 40 hours. 
  • 1940: The 40-hour work week became U.S. law.

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Are 40-hour work weeks effective?

Now that we know the origin of 40-hour work weeks, the natural follow-up question is: are they effective? To answer this, it’s important to understand how people are currently using those eight-hour work days. According to a past survey from AtTask, this is a general breakdown of how employees spend their time at work: 

  • 45% = primary job duties
  • 40% = meetings, administrative tasks, and "interruptions"
  • 14% = email

These numbers show that the general employee population is far from achieving 100% productivity - which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Research shows that brief diversions can be good for creativity and focus. Let’s take a look at additional evidence around the pros and cons of the 40-hour work week. 

The case for 40-hour work weeks

One thing we can say with certainty is that working more than eight hours a day is actively detrimental for both employees and employers alike. There have been many studies conducted on the negative implications of overwork and all show that people who regularly work overtime are less healthy, more likely to make mistakes, and less productive compared to those who work 40 hours per week. 

The case against 40-hour work weeks

There are also downsides when it comes to 40-hour work weeks. The biggest is that many Americans work an average of seven extra hours a week. Since modern technology has made it possible for employees to access their work anywhere - whether that’s via their cell phones or laptops - they can stay plugged in even after they leave the office. This struggle to disconnect is exactly why the French government recently passed a law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to establish “off limits” hours for emails.

It’s also been shown that the most productive companies aren’t necessarily the ones who work the most hours. In fact, data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that countries with the highest average number of working hours were some of the least productive. Whereas Luxembourg, the most productive country, had an average work week of just 29 hours.

40-hour work week alternatives

While it’s up in the air whether or not the 40-hour work week is the optimal structure for employees, it’s clear that companies are becoming increasingly open to experimenting with other options. Below are three alternatives to the 40-hour work week to consider, and the benefits and drawbacks of each one.

Flex time

Flex time is all about allowing employees to design their own work schedule. This includes everything from letting people determine the start and end time for their work days to offering remote work or telecommuting options. A study from SHRM found that 57 percent of employers currently allow for flextime, and 62 percent allow for some type of telecommuting, so it’s a popular option among companies.

Pros

  • Truly customized. It’s very challenging to have a one-size-fits-all schedule given that every employee has different priorities, interests, and time commitments. Flex time is great because it can be customized to the needs of the individual - whether that’s allowing early risers start their day at 7 a.m., or giving parents the peace of mind to head out early to pick up their children from school.
  • Work-life balance. Flex time encourages work-life balance because it allows employees to carve out time to take care of themselves outside the office, such as going to doctor’s appointments or fitness classes. The biggest benefit is they can do this without worrying about being away from their desks for too long.

Cons

  • Scheduling conflicts. There’s the potential that your team will have a hard time booking meetings with one another if everyone’s schedules are too diverse. However, you can manage this challenge by setting soft boundaries to ensure your employees are in the office at the same time for at least a few hours every day.
  • Trickier management. Another factor to consider is that it may be more difficult to get a sense for what your employees are working on since your schedules may not allow you to pop over to each other’s desks for quick updates. Also, having employees who are frequently remote requires extra thoughtfulness to make sure they feel included. This can be remedied with strong communication and optimized one-on-one meetings.  

Compressed work week

A compressed work week is one that consists of four 10-hour days. While there hasn’t been as much research conducted on this option compared to flex time, it’s certainly an alternative that has the potential to grow in popularity as employees look for a variety of work structures to choose from. 

Pros

  • Three-day weekends. Everyone has probably dreamed of a three-day weekend at some point, and the compressed work week makes this a reality. Employees will be able to take a full day off during each work week, while still preserving their full-time income.
  • Less commute time. Going to work only four days a week is good news for the environment as well. That’s 20% less of a commute, which means significantly reduced emissions from employees who drive to work.

Cons

  • Exhaustion. 10-hour days are long. For some employees, the extra two hours can be both mentally and physically exhausting, which can hinder productivity and lower the quality of work. This can ultimately be detrimental to both the business and the individual.
  • Difficult schedules. Working from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm can be prohibitive for employees who have after-work obligations, such as caring for children, elder relatives, or pets. It also leaves little time to do activities and chores, such as cooking meals, grocery shopping, or exercising.  

32-hour work week

The 32-hour work week also only consists of four days. However, they are the standard 8-hour days instead of 10-hour days. Some companies have already experimented with this format, with some seeing great results and others not so much.

Pros

  • Best of both worlds. This alternative contains the best of both worlds since it has the benefit of a three-day weekend without the extended days. It’s likely to boost work-life balance and happiness levels for employees.    
  • Improved productivity. One of the arguments for the 32-hour work week is that employees are more likely to manage their time better since they know they don’t have the extra day. This can improve productivity and focused work.

Cons

  • Not enough time. For some employees and companies, 32 hours is simply not enough to get the necessary work done. If this is the case, not having the ability to work five days a week could cause even more stress and time pressure.
  • Challenging for customer-focused industries. The 32-hour work week may be difficult to implement for customer-focused industries or roles like real estate, sales, or partnerships. Since 32-hour work weeks aren’t yet a widely accepted format, it may even prove to be a business disadvantage to take away a day of customer service - especially if other competitors don’t.

It’s exciting to live in an era where more and more companies are testing standard workplace structures and offering their employees flexible options. Remember that, at the end of the day, it should be about what best aligns with the needs of your organization. If you love learning about how to build a better workplace, be sure to get tickets for our global Culture First conference in July 2019. 


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