We need to rethink the 9-5 workday

The eight hour workday has its origins in the industrial revolution, almost 200 years ago, so why do we still think it is relevant today?

The regulation of time, especially working time, has always been something that has interested me ever since my days as a tentative History undergraduate.

Before the industrial revolution, productive time was controlled by agricultural cycles, there would have been intense labour requirements during harvest and planting seasons, however much more opportunity for rest during the winter season. Even among mercantile classes, the yearly agricultural calender would have determined working patterns due to the cyclic availability of resources.

Working patterns would have been flexible and unfixed to accommodate these seasonal changes and more localized conditions, such as religious holidays, weather and the ever changing time of sunrise and sunset.

Enter the industrial revolution and factory time.

With the introduction of tireless mechanized production and artificial lighting, The working day became regulated, fixed to hourly metrics. People became calculated units of production, with working days ranging from 10-16 hours in some cases.

Many people campaigned for the introduction of a more humane "eight hour day" - this and similar protests formed part of the Factory Acts, which helped regulate the conditions of industrial employment.

Whilst the majority of us no longer toil away in factories, this traditional working arrangement of the 36-40 hour week still dominates many forms of employment - especially those in the service industry.

Whilst it is clear that in some industries, the 9-5 is still applicable, it's time for all of us to reexamine our working weeks and look for alternatives that allow for productivity and a high quality of life.

I want to make the case for rethinking this delineation of working time and the potential benefits to switching to a more flexible and self enforced working schedule.


The principle: Less can be more 

I think it's fair to say that nobody is 100% productive for the whole of an arbitrary 8 hour period. If you are, then you are some kind of superhuman, the likes of which I have not met before.

I personally find that I have a window of really productive time for about 3 hours mid morning and then a couple of hours in the early evening. During these times I am extremely focused and usually get my best work done. There is a period around 12-2 where I simply can not concentrate, trying to do anything meaningful during this time is the equivalent of getting blood out of a stone.

When I worked in a rigid 9-5 structure, I used to find it ridiculous that I was forced by convention to sit in a seat at a desk for a period in which I was not being effective, no matter how hard I tried. This had a significant impact upon my morale, as I felt both useless and bored.

Everyone has their own unique productivity cycle during the day. For example, my partner has to produce a lot of creative work and finds that he works best in the evenings. I have a friend who loves write during the hours of 6-8 am. Both of these patterns fall well outside the scope of a 9-5 workday.

If we accept that people have individual working patterns and that they will not be fully productive during a full eight hour period, we open ourselves up to new possibilities.

By allowing people to set their own schedule according to their own cycles, we are promoting productivity and efficiency.

The 80/20 principle (Pareto principle) is a good illustration of why productivity is the metric we should be considering over time. It simply states that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. 

While the numbers may not be exact, it works as simple rule of thumb to remind us that there is an inequality in distribution between cause and effect.

When applied to working patterns, it has been used to suggest that roughly 80% of our work is a result of 20% of our time spent.

It is therefore possible to reduce the time we spend working without affecting our productive output.


The principle: Why waste resources

I live in a city which has some of the worst rush hour traffic I have ever encountered (outside of London.) Medieval walls were not built to handle thousands of people going to work for exactly the same time and leaving altogether en mass.

I have wasted hours of valuable time simply sitting in traffic caused by the sheer weight of vehicles on the road.

If set working hours were less fixed, this traffic would become more spread out during the day and therefore congestion during peak periods would lessen.

The savings are twofold - as you are saving both time and resources.

Sitting in traffic is a waste of petrol and static vehicles with running engines significantly contribute to local pollution. I don't really need to explain why both of these are bad for our health and the environment.


The principle: give parents the choice

Imagine a situation where both parents could work AND look after their dependents equally.

Shifting to flexible work patterns could make this a reality - as partners could, if they wanted to, schedule their workdays to allow for both childcare and employment to be possible.

If we also accept that a workday does not have to be 8 hours, this also creates more time for parents to spend both together (or with friends/relatives if they are single parents) and with their children.

With childcare costs prohibitively high in many cases, such a situation would have a significant impact on the amount of women returning to work after having children, as it would become both cost effective and time possible.

There are some limitations to this - as single parents may not benefit as much as those in partnerships. However, they may still benefit from being able to schedule their workday around school/nursery hours.

So how can organisations look to develop beyond the 9-5?

With the advance of digital technology and cloud based systems, offering flexible working schedules is now easier than ever. Communication no longer needs to happen within delineated hours or fixed spaces.

Clients can spoken to remotely, work can be completed and sent outside of normal office hours. Work can now even be done from home, saving both resources and time by eliminating the commute alltogether!

I challenge you to try it out in your organisation, even if it's just for a week. Measure the effects, both those of completed work and employee satisfaction, you may find that the results surprise you.

Some organisations offer core hours where everyone must be present to preserve team communication, e.g. 12-pm. However outside that, people are free to work when they choose.

If you are worried about your output suffering, put in place a service level agreement, which lays out your expectations for the work you expect to be completed during the trial period.

Engage your team with this agreement and ensure that everyone is involved in setting the expectations as a team. This will allow for a better understanding of what the flexible schedule will involve and also allow for discussion of any fears/problems people may have regarding this new way of working.

There is a small caveat to this - We need to guard against turning out jobs into 24 hours concerns. There needs to be allowances made for disengaging from working and taking part in relaxing and recreational activities.

Want to tell me your thoughts on the 9-5 workday?

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