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How the evolution of the workweek affects the future of the workplace

Joseph Patterson | February 28, 2019
If you’re a full-time employee, chances are you work a five-day, 40-hour week — the classic grind. The familiar five-day workweek is deeply rooted in revolution, and we’d be remiss to contemplate a shortened workweek without first acknowledging that the 40-hour standard was carried on the backs of hard laborers who fought for better wages, safe working conditions, and reasonable hours. Here, we’ll look at the history of the five-day workweek, past economic predictions on the subject, and current attitudes toward the idea of a four-day workweek, including those of early adopters. 

How Americans won the 40-hour workweek

The 40-hour workweek movement came to America in the mid-19th century. Calling for better working conditions and regulations to the length of the workday, advocates represented those who routinely worked 100-hour weeks despite early laws passed to deter these hours. Union-organized strikes and demonstrations broke out across the nation, with the epicenter in Chicago where wealth disparity was on full display. The demonstrations culminated in the Haymarket Affair on May 4, 1886, a protest on the streets of Chicago that ended in chaos, violence, and several fatalities, with protesters and police caught in the crossfire. In the years following, industries and labor groups around the country slowly began moving toward the eight-hour workday. Progress was made by the United Mine Workers, the Building Trades Council of San Francisco, the International Typographical Union, and, most popularly, the Ford Motor Company in 1914. Railroad workers won the eight-hour day with the Adamson Act in 1916, and the 40-hour week was added to the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1937 to establish overtime regulations.  

The 15-hour workweek prediction and the 2019 reality

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that in 100 years (the year 2030), advancements in technology would be so great that humans would not have to struggle to produce everything we need. As a result, our workweek would be a mere 15 hours, or three hours each day, and the abundance of products would result in a change to our collective morals, valuing the well-being of many over working to make the rich richer. Keynes’ prediction relied on the idea that, at a certain point, the world would have enough to go around, and we would become satisfied with what we have. As we approach 2030, however, the rate of production has not leveled the playing field. Americans are still working an average of 47 hours per week, and increased connectivity means it’s not uncommon for employees to take their work home with them.  

Survey respondents support the four-day workweek

Still, many Americans feel they could benefit from working less and look positively on the idea of a shorter workweek, according to a recent TSheets survey. A survey of 400 full-time U.S. employees and business owners found 58 percent support the idea of working four days per week as opposed to five. The same survey found 2 in 3 workers believe a shorter workweek would boost productivity, and of the workers who already work a four-day week, 63 percent say productivity has improved since the shorter week was adopted. Similarly, a productivity survey by TSheets found 61 percent of employees felt they’d be more productive if they had a more flexible work schedule. And a study by Vouchercloud found that among 1,989 U.K. office workers, distractions in the workplace resulted in just three hours of productivity. Taking productivity research to heart, Andrew Barnes, the managing director at Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand, sought to increase job satisfaction and maintain high levels of productivity by allowing employees to work four days per week and get paid for five. The experiment found that employees could complete work while enjoying a better work-life balance and less stress. Moreover, The New York Times reported that workers at Perpetual Guardian felt more motivated to be productive while in the office. Since research shows a positive correlation between long work hours and depression, there could be major positive health and well-being outcomes for companies that shorten the workweek from five days to four. Among TSheets survey respondents, other benefits of shorter workweeks include less stress, fewer sick days, and greater loyalty. When all is said and done, the shorter workweek isn’t for everyone. Oregon-based tech company Treehouse tested a 32-hour workweek. While the company initially reported an increase in work-life balance, they eventually reverted to a regular five-day schedule, as CEO Ryan Carson decided the test ultimately killed work ethic.  

Where do you think the workweek is headed? Are developments in technology making the four-day week more likely? Share your ideas in the comments below!

A little about Joseph Patterson

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