For full-time employees in the U.S., a 40-hour work week is typically the acceptable standard for working. Indeed, many employees work more than 40 hours, with census data confirming that 13.4 million Americans work more than one job to pay the bills.
However, just because we have accepted this structure as reality, it might not mean that it’s the best way to operate.
This has become a popular topic of conversation over the last year. COVID-19 has forced most industries to adjust their operations and explore how their employees can remain productive in non-traditional spaces and schedules.
For some, it has shed light on how our current approach can be detrimental to the work/life balance of employees and a hindrance on a businesses’ ability to innovate and thrive.
So, how did the 40-hour work week come to prominence, and what has brought us to the cusp of change? Moreover, what can we expect the future for employees and employers alike to look like?
How did we get here?
In the U.S., the 40-hour work week has its roots in the mid-19th century. Labor movements in various states had struggled to reach agreements for eight-hour work days, which led to unions calling strikes and marches.
Unfortunately, many of the agreements reached through local legislation and directly with employers found workers receiving their demand for reduced hours, but also with a reduction of pay.
Even when Ulysses S. Grant guaranteed eight-hour work days for government employees and encouraged the private sector to do the same, business owners were resistant to the idea. The practice didn’t start to become popular until 1915, when Henry Ford not only instituted a 40-hour working week but raised wages to $5 per day — almost twice their previous rate.
Though Ford’s actions were met with initial hostility by many industries, resistance fell away once it was noted that the move boosted worker productivity. The practice became law with the 1940 amended Fair Labor Standards Act, which not only standardized the 40-hour week but also set out requirements for overtime pay.
Since then, businesses have taken to making standards clear in working hours regulations, which outline to employees how these 40-hour weeks are expected to be divided into workdays, and how overtime is calculated. These also tend to include how the working week is also affected by statutory vacation entitlements.
The upshot seems to be that once employers noted that providing employees with clear hours, and rights that are implemented across industries, had positive outcomes for both the business and employees, implementation support grew.
The motivation for change
So, if the 40-hour working week came to prominence because it worked for both workers and employers, why should we be changing it?
Well, the simple answer is that it was the best of a bad situation at the time.
It was, in effect, the result of a compromise to stop workers from being exploited and employers agreed when they could see they could still be profitable. This doesn’t mean to say that 40 hours a week represents the best possible practices for everyone involved.
Employees are certainly not always happier working 40 hours a week or more. As society has evolved over the last century or so, it is more common for both adults in a family to be working full-time jobs.
When couples work 40 hours per week each, this gives less time for them to spend together, with children, or just doing things they enjoy. The result is a poor work-life balance.
Their personal power to affect this is also limited. Given that salary rates, particularly when it comes to the minimum wage, haven’t kept pace with inflation, workers choosing to take fewer hours to improve their balance can struggle financially.
This means that from a worker satisfaction standpoint, there’s an imperative to both reduce the working week and raise the per-hour rate to minimize financial impact.
So, what’s the motivation here for companies to change?
We can start with the tendency for happy, satisfied workers who feel stable in their jobs to be more productive. Various trials have proved the efficacy of this.
As a recent example, Microsoft Japan implemented their Work-Life Choice Challenge during the summer of 2019. This gave their entire staff every Friday off for five weeks without a decrease in pay. The results found meetings were more efficient, staff took less time off during workdays, there was a reduction in the use of resources, and productivity rose by 40%.
This suggests that not only can a new approach to the working week not harm the business; it can be beneficial for everyone involved.
How can we make it practical?
While we recognize that there is an imperative for reduction, there is always the question of how to implement it practically. Well, we are living in a business environment where the approaches of the past are becoming less relevant. The global pandemic has shown us that we don’t necessarily need staff to be working set hours within an office to be productive.
Indeed, flexibility in working arrangements can improve the work-life balance. As such, businesses can benefit from moving away from doing what everyone else is doing for no other reason than everyone else seems to be doing it.
Businesses need to look at how their goals can be achieved while reducing employee’s working hours and maintaining full pay rates. If businesses are dependent on projects, it can be wise to base required hours on project completion times.
Making changes to day-to-day scheduling can improve productivity. Reducing the working week by a day can also be a motivating factor for employees to achieve more in a shorter amount of time, but it can also highlight areas that can be improved for efficiency moving forward.
Key here, too, is the ability to find tools that improve efficiency in a way that reduces the working week of a profitable enterprise. By automating bills and invoicing and integrating banking with accounting software, there are opportunities to remove time-sucking tasks and reduce costly errors.
We live in a technologically enhanced society, and it’s worth exploring how much of those 40 hours can be reduced when the right software and hardware is implemented.
We are at the cusp of change in our working environments. The 40-hour work week, while an important product of its time, is not perfectly suited to our contemporary lifestyle.
Business owners and employees need to work together to understand what changes need to be made that both improve employees’ work/life balance and keep companies profitable.