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Beyond the 9-5: The Benefits of a Flexible (and Shorter) Workweek

3 min read

July 31, 2023

Did the pandemic genuinely change how we view the work-life balance? Many employees found they could be just as productive working a more flexible schedule from home as they could commuting to a 9-to-5 at the office. And they may never want to go back.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Americans work fewer hours. The average nonfarm (private sector) employee worked 34.3 hours per week in May 2023, lower than the May 2019 average and below the peak of 35 hours in January 2021.

This comes simultaneously as another potential economic slowdown looms, even as employers hire more workers. Although financial uncertainty often results in employers cutting hours to reduce payroll expenses, the reason may be less ominous this time.

Many businesses are finally able to fill long-vacant positions. They have more staff to cover shifts, so previously overworked employees can go back to more normal hours. With recent labor shortages still fresh in their minds, they’re also offering more flexible schedules to satisfy workers.

Employees are happier and even more productive when they work fewer hours or have more control over their schedules. Thanks to improved remote communications and collaboration solutions, workers may leave the traditional 40-hour workweek behind for good.

The Origins of the 40-Hour Workweek

The concept of a 40-hour, 9-to-5 work schedule is relatively new. For most of human history, people tended to their work as needed, often dependent on available daylight or the season. Here’s a brief history of how the 40-hour workweek came about:

  • 1780s: Factory and mill workers often labor 16 hours, six days a week, with little time to rest.
  • 1817: Socialist Robert Owen advocates for the 40-hour workweek with the slogan, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.”
  • 1860: President Ulysses S. Grant gives government workers an eight-hour workday.
  • 1926: Henry Ford implements his factories' five-day, 40-hour workweek.
  • 1940: Congress passes the Fair Labor Standards Act, limiting the workweek to 40 hours.

The 40-hour workweek remained the norm into the twenty-first century until the pandemic changed the way we think about how and where we work.

Working Hours Around the World

The idea of the 9-to-5 is familiar to Americans, but the standard week varies for workers worldwide.

The longest days are put in by workers in Mauritania, who average 54 hours per week. In contrast, employees from Australia have the shortest workweek, averaging just 29 hours. Generally, workers in higher-income countries work fewer hours than those in less-developed nations.

Employees in the UK worked an average of 36.7 hours per week as of April 2023, almost back to the pre-pandemic level of 36.9 in December 2019. This is up from a low of 30.3 during the June 2020 lockdown.

Our time working depends on cultural norms where we live, but the global average seems to have rebounded slightly below pre-pandemic levels. This may reflect a universal desire for a better work-life balance.

Do Flexible Schedules Make Employees More Productive?

When Henry Ford instituted the 40-hour workweek in his factories, he wasn’t just giving his employees more time off. He found that overall productivity increased when workers were better rested.

Recent research has found that modern employees are just as productive even when not working a traditional 40-hour week. Alternate schedules like flexible hours, hybrid, remote work, or four-day workweeks show no decrease in worker productivity but improve employee morale and lower attrition rates.

Sixty-one companies in the UK recently trialed a four-day workweek with no reduction in employee pay. The results were promising: 71% of employees reported lower levels of burnout, and companies experienced 65% fewer sick and personal days. Revenues even increased slightly, by an average of 1.4%. Most companies plan to continue even after the experiment.

Many European countries have tested or plan to try four-day workweeks for government employees, including Iceland, Belgium, Portugal, Scotland, and Wales. Some follow a 100:80:100 model, or 100% of the pay for 80% of the time, with 100% productivity levels. Others simply condense the workweek with four longer days in exchange for a day off.

According to a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study, hybrid schedules are also popular- and productive. A random group of employees was selected for hybrid work, while the control group remained in the office. The hybrid group reported higher satisfaction, experienced 33% reduced attrition, and worked two fewer hours on home days.

Remote communication tools like messaging and video calls became more important to these employees, who maintained the same productivity levels as their on-site counterparts. Even in-person workers with hybrid teams were more likely to use these solutions regularly and effectively.

Tools for Moving Beyond the 9-to-5

The good news for companies, especially those already remote-capable, is that they probably already have the tools to maintain productivity while giving employees more flexible schedules.

A unified collaboration platform makes asynchronous teamwork much more accessible by streamlining workflows and coordinating schedules. Third-party integrations allow employees to access different communications systems through a single interface, so they can easily switch between solo work and collaborating with colleagues.

The research by NBER found that hybrid workers who used virtual communications and collaboration tools like group chats, file sharing, and video meetings were more likely to make efficient use of their days, even in the office. This saves employers money and gives employees a stronger work-life balance.

Learn how Mitel’s collaboration solutions can help your business break free from the 40-hour workweek for happier, more satisfied (and productive) employees.

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