Six Hour Workdays are the New Black

Why 9 to 5 no longer makes sense in the 21st Century

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Children as young as six worked the coal mines before unions got their way.
Children as young as six worked the coal mines before unions got their way.

The nine-to-five workday has been a hallmark of the working world since it was ratified as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. American labor unions had, until then, fought for decades to do away with the inhumane working conditions that plagued factory workers and had seen children a young as six-years-old in the coal mines.

In the eight decades since, work has largely evolved from algorithmic, assembly line tasks to heuristic, critical thinking tasks, yet despite this, most modern organisations are still designed to manage hours, something organizational psychologist and New York Times bestselling author, Adam Grant, doesn’t agree with. “The more complex and creative jobs are, the less it makes sense to pay attention to hours at all.”

In order to perform at a high level, heuristic and creative workers need to get into flow, coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, and better known by most people as ‘the zone’. Think a lone surfer catching a ten-foot wave and completely immersed in the task at hand, or a writer who has been consumed by their work, so much so that they hadn’t realised that several hours had gone by. That’s flow. Management consultancy McKinsey and Co found that top executives are up to five times more productive when they’re in a state of flow.

Yet, the modern organization ultimately inhibits its people from getting into flow by setting unrealistic expectations on availability and responsiveness as well as making no qualms about interrupting people immersed in a task and pulling them into, what often amount to, pointless hour-long meetings. Employees are in such a state of hyper-availability that they check their email 74 times a day.

Your typical executive will find themselves, not immersed in flow, but instead immersed in the pursuit of inbox zero, responding to the ding of desktop and smartphone notifications, consensus-seeking for what often amount to what Jeff Bezos calls Type-2 reversible decisions, and traveling long distance for face-to-face meetings when a phone call would have sufficed.

Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of five self-improvement books, including Deep Work, says that “three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work (or flow) each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.”

Getting more shallow work hours in won’t necessarily offset a lack of uninterrupted, deep work.

Basecamp co-founder, Jason Fried agreed, saying on my Future Squared podcast that “if you don’t get a good four hours of flow to yourself a day, putting more hours in isn’t going to make up for it. It’s just not true that if you stay at the office longer you get more work done.”

Our 9am to 3pm Experiment
Having conducted a two-week 9am to 3pm experiment with my team at innovation acclerator Collective Campus, I can confirm that we had a positive outcome. The team was just as productive, if not more productive, than a standard workday, and also reported being in an improved mental state.

If you’re the manager of a small team with limited resources, take a moment to reflect on the following productivity techniques and remember that your job as a leader is to facilitate outcomes, not just the illusion of them.

  1. Prioritize: Identify and deliver only on value-adding tasks that move your organization towards its goals.
  2. Cut: Channel Kaizen and cut waste out of your business, this extends to hour-long meetings that don’t need to happen and quick wins such as notifications which should be turned off.
  3. Automate: Algorithmic tasks should be just that, algorithmic. Automate them.
  4. Outsource: If rudimentary tasks are too difficult to automate, then they can be delegated or outsourced. Focus your and your team’s efforts on $100 an hour and above tasks, not $10 an hour tasks.
  5. Test: If you can measure it, you can manage it. Avoid paralysis analysis and jumping to conclusions (both of which cost organizations untold thousands in lost productivity) by testing key assumptions underpinning your decisions.
  6. Start: Your engines that is. Whether that be working on the hardest thing first, blocking out your mornings for uninterrupted flow time or using the Pomodoro technique, leverage one of the many triggers to get you into deep work.

Reset Expectations
The biggest thing I hear from employees is that, while they’d love to apply these techniques, they can’t because of unrealistic expectations set by management. If you truly want your people to do their best work and live their best lives, then make it okay for them not to respond immediately and make it not okay to interrupt people at a whim. Use asynchronous communication – whether that be email or a messaging tool – to support people responding at a time that suits them. Despite apparent conventional wisdom, most things don’t require an immediate response. Giving people more control over their work has also been found to be a key factor in the fight against workplace stress.

Winner Takes All
Not only does fostering a flow-friendly workplace make your people more productive, but it also boosts revenue numbers, employee engagement and retention and gives your people more time for a little thing called life.

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