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Why We Should Rethink the 9-5 Workday to Improve Well-Being at Work

Technology hasn’t only changed how we work, but how much time we need to spend working.

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Shutterstock

Companies need to do more to support employee wellness. If I’d uttered those words aloud twenty years ago, I would’ve been laughed out of the room as a dreamer who didn’t understand the realities of the day’s fast-paced business environment. But the technology that created that “fast-paced environment” has improved to such an extent that how we work can and should change. This piece is less an argument for onsite amenities (ping pong, catered lunches) and more for changing the “money for time” model to the “money for expertise and results” model. 

I’ve met people who believe we’re in a golden age, that the overall power dynamic between employers and employees is more balanced than ever, and that while we can make minute improvements, our overall work culture has reached its zenith and can only be maintained, but not improved. That’s what everyone at the top says because, for them, the status quo is comfortable, safe, and profitable. While they benefit from positive change, they don’t have the motivation to move the needle. We are at a point in history where we need to move the needle. Not because there’s a humanitarian crisis or abuses, but because it’s our duty as leaders, as human beings, to continue improving work and quality of life for ourselves and others.

There have been several (r)evolutionary stages in overall employment practices in history, each better than the last and each driven by external forces and workers, not employers. The first stage was the end of serfdom. Serfdom varied in form and practice around the world but was essentially a system where people were required to work for and pay taxes to a landowner in exchange for land, shelter, and protection. They had little to no autonomy, and although they could purchase their freedom, this happened very rarely. Global serfdom ended gradually from the mid-fourteenth century to the early nineteenth century, which marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We can attribute the decline of serfdom to various causes, including the Black Death, the growth of cities and the rise of the merchant class, and technology that created entirely new industries and streamlined the old. Coinciding with these changes was the painfully slow, but eventual abolition of slavery, which also precipitated massive changes to the global workforce and local, national, and global economies.

During the Industrial Revolution, the dominant employment model became what it is today: money for time. While technology, productivity, and profitability boomed, employers still had an incredible amount of control over workers, who often worked 18-20 hour days, six days a week. Labor rights were nonexistent, and deaths from injury, overwork, and unsanitary or chemically hazardous environments were common. Employers used pit bosses and union-busting to maintain control over their workforces (which included children) and were merciless in their attempts to curb labor laws that they believed would adversely affect their profitability. Despite these efforts, unions effectively waged their collective bargaining power for higher pay, reduced hours, safer working conditions, and the outlawing of child labor. Significant legal protections supporting these gradual improvements began in the early 20th century with the Clayton Act of 1914, which guaranteed the right to organize. The last major federal labor law passed in favor of workers was the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, and the push for more continues to this day as we debate paid sick leave, paid parental leave and increasing the minimum wage. 

The efforts to secure those benefits and rights are commendable, and we should all support them. However, the one conversation we’re not having is the one we need the most: how to change our mindset around work, value, time, and compensation. Whether workers are paid a salary or hourly, the process is the same: a worker is exchanging time for money. We’ve attached so much value to time that we equate it with effort, effectiveness, and dedication. Despite our assertions to the contrary, results come in second. For example, if you accepted a project quote for ten hours in exchange for $5,000, but the contractor delivered results in eight, you’d expect a discounted final invoice even though you got the desired product or result faster than expected. We’ve been conditioned to value the time spent on a project over the results. Have you ever heard of Picasso and the sidewalk cafe napkin? Legend has it that a woman approached Picasso and asked him to draw a picture on a napkin and that she would pay whatever he thought it was worth. Picasso drew something and asked for $10,000. The prospective buyer protested that the drawing only took him thirty seconds, and Picasso replied, “No, it took me forty years to draw this.” Most interpretations of this story focus on the need to know one’s worth or the years it takes to build valuable expertise, but what this so clearly illustrates is our knee-jerk insistence that time directly correlates to effort, expertise, and value.

It’s no surprise that the developer who spends 10+ hours a day coding in the office is promoted ahead of another coworker who spends 7-8 hours, even if the developer who works less is more productive and is less likely to suffer from burnout. Companies praise and reward workers who burn the candle at both ends, both verbally and monetarily, leaving a significant portion of their workforce at a disadvantage. We’ve internalized “time = money” to such a degree that we fail to realize that overworked employees cost us money.

Let’s look at the data. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employee turnover rates are increasing. From 2014-2018 the average turnover rate across all industries and regions increased by 4% from 40.3% to 44.3%. It costs at least 20% of a former employee’s salary to replace them, so if a company with 100 employees and an average salary of $60,000 loses 20% of its workforce annually (half the national average) at a rate of $12,000 in costs, they spend $240,000 per year covering employee turnover. No one will ever get their turnover down to zero, nor should that be the goal. However, if companies were to reduce the number of required office hours and be mindful of employees’ off time, companies could lower turnover significantly while improving their employees’ quality of life and job satisfaction. 

Technology hasn’t only changed how we work, but how much time we need to spend working. With how much technology has streamlined processes and improved productivity, workdays should be shorter but, perversely, we’re spending more time working now than we did twenty to thirty years ago. Availability has become synonymous with dedication, and the ubiquity of instant communication has erased much-needed boundaries. Before email, if I needed to communicate with my team, I had to type a memo, print and collate copies, and deliver them personally to the mailroom for distribution. Because of the time required, I only sent them after thoughtful consideration. Now, two-line messages and meeting requests with no agenda flood my inbox. I don’t want to trade email for printed memos, but I’d like to avoid the tech-induced busy traps that waste everyone’s time, and it starts with valuing effort, expertise, and results over time spent in a desk chair.

One of my early bosses at Oracle, an incredible manager named Kevin Kern, pulled me into his office when I was a 25-year-old sales rep figuring out how the world of software worked. “Berridge, I need five solid hours out of you a day. Five focused hours.” Five? That sounded extremely generous of my boss. However, what he meant, rightly so, was for me to be mentally prepared, organized, and ready to drive those five hours hard day after day. So, why are workdays eight to ten hours (or more)? How many hours do we waste stretching our mental availability to meet those inflated expectations? Reducing the required number of hours doesn’t mean sacrificing quality or productivity, it means improving it. If you knew that you could buckle down and finish all of your work in five hours for the same salary and have an extra three to five hours of free time every day, wouldn’t you do it? The fact is, most of us can finish our daily work in that time but don’t because we’re expected to be in the office from 9-5 or longer. And this doesn’t even cover the early morning and late-night emails and phone calls sent and scheduled by bosses and coworkers. Leaders need to reshape their mentality to value results, not hours, or the game of oneupmanship, burnout, and turnover is only going to get worse.

Could we make progress in closing the gender pay gap by changing how we compensate work? Yes. If reduced hours don’t have to equal reduced pay, more women would be able to balance their work and home lives without sacrificing advancement opportunities. If we put systems in place that value output and expertise overtime in the office, outside obligations (family, school, hobbies, passion projects) are no longer a liability or constraint. By freeing part of the workday, we’re freeing ourselves to live better and contribute more valuably in every aspect of our professional and personal lives.

This idea isn’t new, and numerous studies over the past half a century have shown that reduced work hours increase employee productivity, satisfaction, and loyalty. Kellogg, of Corn Flakes fame, instituted a six-hour workday in the 1930s and saw productivity and satisfaction skyrocket. Pushback eventually came in the form of the sexist feminization of shorter workdays, leading a return to an 8-hour day. Now, with our current technology and improving social standards, we have an opportunity to massively improve our productivity, profitability, and quality of life without belittling one group at the expense of another.

A shorter workday isn’t currently practical for every industry, most notably the service sectors, but there could come a day when combining AI and automation with service workers could lead to fewer hours at higher pay. For any of this to happen, I’m appealing to business leaders’ decency quotient. Even though the data tells us there’s a strong financial incentive to adopt this model, it can’t always be about the bottom line. Are we working only for profit or do we want to build a community that’s bigger and better than just ourselves and our shareholders? If you’re a business leader, you have the responsibility and opportunity to improve the state of the world, and that begins with valuing and supporting your employees’ mental, physical, and emotional health. Let’s start with changing the mindset and practices around employee time.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.com

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