We think of the workweek as 40 hours of service to a boss or clients. The 40-hour week is generally accepted as the standard full-time job description. However, a 40-hour workweek hasn’t always been the norm.

Over the years, the workweek has evolved into what we now accept as an average week. Some question the efficiency of continuing with this model. Let’s look at the changes that have occurred thus far to the workweek and then some alternatives to the current model.

The Standard Workweek: A History

In the 19th century, the workweek began to change. It gradually evolved into the standard we now know. Let’s look at a timeline of those changes.

  • 1817: People worked 80-100 hours a week until after the Industrial Revolution when labor union groups and activists began to advocate for improved conditions.
  • 1866: Congress is asked to pass a law that mandates an 8-hour workday. The National Labor Union proposed the change. Public support for the 8-hour day increased even though the law wasn’t passed.
  • 1869: A proclamation guaranteeing 8-hour workdays for government employees is issued by President Grant. His decision caused workers in the private sector to push for those rights for themselves.
  • 1886: A law mandating 8-hour workdays is passed by the legislature in Illinois. Many employers refused to abide by the new law, resulting in a massive worker strike in Chicago. During the strike, a bomb killed at least 12 people. The aftermath of these events is now known as the Haymarket Riot. May 1 becomes a public holiday in remembrance of the Haymarket Riot in many countries.
  • 1926: Henry Ford discovered that working more than 40 hours a week only resulted in a small amount of added productivity. He implemented a 40-hour workweek and popularized the concept.
  • 1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act is passed by Congress. The Act required overtime pay for anyone working more than 44 hours in one week. An amendment was passed later, reducing the workweek from 44 hours to 40.
  • 1940: The US makes a 40-hour workweek law.

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The Effectiveness of a Standard 40-Hour Workweek

After learning how the US came to use the 40-hour workweek as the standard, the next thing to look at is the effectiveness of that standard. To fully understand how to determine the effectiveness, first, we need to break the workweek into how an employee spends that time. According to previous data, workers spend about 45% of their time completing their assigned job tasks and 40% of their time in meetings or dealing with administrative tasks. The remainder of their time is spent answering emails.

From the numbers, we can see that, generally, employees don’t necessarily reach 100% productivity during their workweek. However, creativity and focus can be increased by taking incremental breaks from working on typical tasks. There are other pros and cons to a 40-hour workweek.

Pros of A 40-Hour Workweek

Above eight hours a day or 40 hours a week, employers and employees both deal with detrimental effects. People who work overtime routinely face health issues. Their productivity rates are reduced, and they are more likely to make mistakes in their daily work tasks.

Cons to A 40-Hour Workweek

With technological advances comes the ability to work from anywhere or everywhere. Many Americans use that technology to access work even after their shift should have ended. The average amount that these workers work above their 40 hours is approximately seven additional hours each week. The inability to leave work behind is the driving force behind the new French law that requires businesses with more than 50 workers to set off-limits times for email communication.

Companies that work the most hours aren’t necessarily the most productive. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has data indicating that countries with the highest working hours are the least productive. Luxembourg, however, had an average 29-hour workweek, and it was deemed the most productive country.

Alternatives to A 40-Hour Workweek

It hasn’t been definitively decided if the 40-hour workweek is the best structure to use. However, businesses are becoming more open to trying different options. Let’s look at three of those options and the pros and cons of each.

Flextime

Companies that allow their employees to set their own work schedules are allowing flextime schedules. Flextime models can include allowing employees to set their start and end times, working remotely, or telecommuting. One study indicates that 57% of employers allow flextime, while 62% allow telecommuting. These percentages indicate that flextime is a popular option.

Pros

  • Schedules are customized. Each employee can incorporate their interests, priorities, and other commitments into how they schedule their work time. The individual can customize their schedule to their needs. Early risers can start their day early, while night owls can work at night.
  • A work-life balance is created. Employees can select times to complete projects or take care of personal business. The most significant benefit to this model is that they can work without missing too much of life and vice versa.

Cons

  • There is a potential for scheduling conflicts. Even when working a flex schedule, you may need to have meetings with other team members. If everyone is on a flex schedule, it can be difficult to schedule those meetings. The way to work around that is to have set meeting times each week that are mandatory or have boundaries around how many hours workers can be away from the office.
  • It can be more challenging to manage a flex work schedule. You may not know what projects each employee is working on or what their progress is on their projects. Including remote employees requires extra thought and effort. Ensure you effectively communicate with everyone on your team and have meetings designed with all employees in mind.

The Compressed Workweek

Have you ever heard someone say they work four tens? They are working four days a week, 10 hours a day. This model is called a compressed workweek. The model hasn’t been investigated as much as flex time, but employees tend to like options, so it’s anticipated that a compressed workweek could grow in popularity.

Pros

  • Three-day weekends every week. Everyone will have an entire day off each week without having to use vacation or sick leave. They will still get paid for a 40-hour workweek because they worked one.
  • Less time on the roads. Driving to work only four days a week is good for your vehicle as well as the environment. One less day spent traveling to and from work can reduce the emissions that affect the local environment.

Cons

  • Long days lead to exhaustion. Some employees may find that working ten hours every day is mentally and physically taxing. The exhaustion levels they experience will affect productivity and the quality of the work they do. This can be problematic for both employer and employee.
  • Schedules can be challenging. An 8:30 to 6:30 work schedule can be exceptionally difficult for employees who have other commitments after work. There’s little time left for family responsibilities at the end of a ten-hour day.

The 32-Hour Workweek

Another four-day model of work schedule is the 32-hour workweek. In this model, the employees work four days, eight hours a day. Some companies who have tried this format find it works, while others aren’t sure about it yet.

Pros

  • The 32-hour week is the best of both worlds. You work eight-hour days, and you still get a three-day weekend. Trying this model could lead to happier employees who experience a greater work-life balance.
  • Possibility of improved productivity. One argument for the 32-hour workweek is that workers might exhibit better time management since they only have four days to complete tasks. The thought is that the employees will be more focused and more productive.

Cons

  • Not enough time to accomplish tasks. Some companies and employees find that 32 hours isn’t enough time to accomplish their tasks thoroughly. When this is the case, lacking the fifth workday can cause stress for the workers.
  • Difficult for industries focused on customers. A 32-hour workweek isn’t yet a standard model; it can be a disadvantage to those who work in the customer service field. They will lose a day of sales; if competitors aren’t taking that same day, it can cause business losses.

Wrapping It Up

A 40-hour workweek hasn’t always been the standard model. While it has been in place since the early 1940s, it isn’t necessarily the most effective work model. Working more than 8 hours a day. Five days a week can be taxing on even the best workers. Workers who work overtime routinely tend to be less healthy and less productive.

The most productive companies are the ones that work fewer than 40 hours. Some models of alternative workweeks include flextime, a compressed workweek, and a 32-hour workweek. As the prevalence of alternative workweek models increases, employers should remain focused on what works best for their organization.

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