The No-Hour Workweek: Reinventing Employee Expectations For The Modern Economy

The 9 to 5 is dead, but we’re still harnessing workers with its outdated strictures. Happy workers are more healthy and more creative, so it’s time to start giving our workers the leeway to be happy (because otherwise they work all the time). The secret: Treat them like people.

A University of Southern California researcher, Alexandra Michel, recently reported on the disastrous effects of the highly stressful work environment of investment banking, citing insomnia, alcoholism, heart palpitations, eating disorders, and explosive tempers among the health hazards of the job. These toxic working habits are not sustainable for the individual or the company. Nor, evidently, do they produce good business practices.

The poster child of bad corporate culture, banks may be the worst culprit, but they’re not the only ones fostering negative working environments. A study by Gallup-Healthways found that nearly one third of all Americans, across all ages and income levels, were unhappy or unmotivated by their careers. That’s no way for us to work, or to live.

What is a Good Job?

There’s a noticeable shift in what people value most in their careers. The New York Times studied key words in a sample of commencement speeches last year. The words "world" and "love" showed up far more often than "money" and "success."

Is the old adage that there’s more to life than money finally sinking in? It seems there’s a nostalgic desire to return to the good old days, where people worked 9 to 5, never on weekends, consumed less, and had ample time for their families and friends.

Because that’s not going to happen, HR departments are considering dozens of ways to make their people happier and healthier, shorter working weeks, unlimited vacation days, uplifting working environments, and new policies to address core needs.

These are worthy ideas, but alone they fail to address some crucial transformations in the world around us. Technology has irrevocably changed the way we conduct business and live our lives. The 9 to 5 is dead and work is ubiquitous. We need to create new models accordingly.

The Startup Conundrum

When I founded Betterment, a better way to save and invest for what’s most important in life, my mission was to reinvent an old, broken process for the 21st century. The goal encompasses all aspects of the company: from the product itself and how we interact with customers, to the values with which we conduct business, and—most importantly—to how we nurture our team.

Startups are notorious for long hours, hard work, and high pressure. Technology means we’re permanently plugged in. Encouraging shorter hours sounds great in theory, but in reality it would likely just look good on paper. Everyone would still work all the time.

In designing a working environment that would bring out the best qualities in our team, we had to come up with a model to satisfy the demands of a startup while balancing the needs of individuals.

The "No-Hour" Workweek

The No-Hour Workweek means our team is constantly in contact. Two-thirds of our team takes customer calls on weekends, and our development team frequently works into the wee hours of the morning. We monitor social media, catch up on emails, and work on projects at night and over the weekends, and we’re constantly attending industry and networking events.

The No-Hour Workweek also means that our team members can come in at 8, 12, or not at all if they’d prefer to work remotely. It means they can work at the times they’re most productive, make family gatherings, attend to personal commitments, leave early for travel or yoga or drinks with friends.

We have tremendous respect for weekends and personal time. To balance the inevitable overtime, we take away traditional time restrictions. Our people get to lead the lives they want and be treated as the adults they are, and we get a kick-ass team that loves to work.

To be successful and to prevent it from turning into the All-Hour Workweek, the No-Hour Workweek needs a framework in place:

  1. Respect: Being connected 24/7 does not mean you place unrealistic demands on each other. If something is urgent, we treat it as such, but we don’t expect an immediate response on every item. We’ve hired people that respect each other and work as a team. They understand how to balance the priorities of our business with the various commitments and needs of their colleagues. Without this understanding, the No-Hour Workweek would spiral out of control.
  2. Focus: In a startup there is always more to do. Each individual needs to understand his or her immediate priorities and what we expect of them. With our guidance, they come up with specific, measurable goals to be reviewed every three months (and more frequently when necessary). It provides autonomy in the role and helps us work towards a common goal.
  3. Environment: It’s still important to foster team morale. Friday team lunches, regular happy hours, ping-pong tournaments, and a choice of workstations (couch, kitchen, nap-room, or desk), create a positive and cohesive work environment for our team. Despite all their options, our full team is in the office 95% of the time because they enjoy working here.
  4. Leisure time: The expectation to switch on whenever needed means encouraging employees to switch off just as frequently. We are a team of entrepreneurs, and we all know the best ideas are inspired away from the desk. Time is finite; energy is not. Rest and recuperation are the best way to boost energy levels. More energy means more creativity. More creativity means better work. And that’s a good outcome for everyone, and the world.

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  • CR Cobb

    Nice idea. But with any work arrangements you need expectations and boundaries.

    Where I work, we share Google calendars to know when someone is or is not available. Some share their personal calendars - which leads to TMI - and some (that'd be me) use a dedicated work calendar. The system works pretty well (recent glitch is new sales rep without shared calendar).

    We have unspoken expectations that we all pull together to meet monthly deadlines, including outside normal work hours into wee hours or before daylight. But we are struggling with "manufactured" crises: sales pitches that need materials at specific times, etc.

    It is difficult for hourly workers to log their hours for multiple, short, periodic work-related "interruptions" outside the office. But hourly workers have the benefit of having a flexible schedule and taking work home.

  • Will Kriski

    I would take it even further and be a contractor once you get tired of the risk and promise of stock options. I work remotely doing IT work, with a high hourly rate and remotely from home. Also I keep work to the general work day even as a consultant. Working late and weekends is a sign of bad management and bad habits. Plus if you really need to interface with people in 3D, they're always out there somewhere.

  • Will! Could I please get any pointers in finding this sort of work? I have a strong 4.5 years experience in IT and customer service and am looking for remote IT position, preferably that are goal instead of time-clock oriented but at this point I am willing to explore any options. I hope you can get back to me with information and thanks either way, this lets me at least know I am not searching for the impossible.

  • guest

    We are all here for a purpose. We all have a calling. 

    You can keep sugar-coating the structure of a work day to make it an easier pill to swallow, but the truth is the majority of us are working jobs that we settled for just because it pays the bills. Instead, we need to start figuring out what we really want to do with our lives. 

    If this sounds negative then it's being taken the wrong way.

  • Ine

    Excellent article and I agree 100%; unfortunately you only see this happening only in start-ups or smaller companies right now. It's about time that corporate culture enters the 21st century. Give flexibility and autonomy to employees and I'm sure it will pay back. Big companies will become less and less attractive to work for if they don't change and how are they then going to attract the talent they need to stay competitive? In times where supply chains are already leaner than lean all big bets should be on people. I don't agree with the fact that it would create a dual society.

  • Ellen Partal

     I will respectfully disagree with Inc. I saw this mentality first way back in the '80's when I went to work at Apple Computer. With a Loan-To-Own Computer, Flexible Schedules and Happy Hours every Friday they pioneered this environment decades ago. I revisited it years later at AdKnowledge also a High-Tech in Silicon Valley. I think a companies personality is structured from management down and "Like Hires Like". When treated with respect and encouraged to collaborate great things can happen and people will work harder because everyone around them is inspired contributing.

  • Deborah

    Clearly, this is progressive thinking and, as mentioned, research bears out productivity improves when employees are happier.
    What is not even addressed here is the discrimination felt by many but specifically women.  And more specifically, pregnancy discrimination.
    Women are often not given reasonable accommodation for their temporary disability and the terms and conditions of their employment diminish because of their pregnancy.  They are no longer viewed as equal members of the team because they are seen as 'out the door', no longer the 'work animal' they were, and a general burden to employers.  Employers communicate to female employees..'great have a baby but don't do it here'.
    Flex hours, no hours, that's all great.  How about a respectful national maternity leave policy...such as more than $170 per week for 6 weeks.  or unpaid for 12 weeks.  and a guarantee of a job to come back to...  And how about not having to sue your employer to get it.

  • Daniel

    In the light of pregnancy's "temporary
    disability", can we consider the "permanent disability" of an
    aging workforce? Age happens to us all- and it is as naturally debilitating as the miracle of birthing.


    What does the "no-hour work week" expectation have
    to say about this huge demographic? ANSWER: nothing.


    The “no-hour work week” expectation of:

    - being “constantly in contact”,

    - taking “customer calls on weekends”,

    - frequently working “into the wee hours of the morning”,

    - working on “projects at night and over the weekends”,

    - “constantly attending industry and networking events”, will most certainly change when the authors turn 60! 

    But hopefully
    their youthful start-up will have paid off to where they set a new expectation,
    calibrated to their new reality.)

  • Amit Pandey

    Hi Jon!

    Is there a job for marketing department in your company in India.I mean why don't you guys reach out to the masses in India, specifically in the SME sector or for that sake any growing company. Jokes apart, in India there is so much potential in the service as well as the product industries, but the problem is almost 90% entrepreneurs or top management executives frown in even reading such articles or even thinking about such things.The global IT / technology industry is focusing in India for their workforce / or they are building their work stations / R&D centers here; ironically the local enterprises are still unable to detach themselves from old ideologies.     Thanks for the nice piece of info and in spreading the awareness.RegardsAmit Pandey  

  • jim dugan

    On the Enterprise, everybody has a role.

    Why call them jobs anyway?

    We're here to learn, advance, and, among other things, work.

    Doing works does nots requires a job.

  • kamalesl

    Although this working model might not be applicable in all industries, elements of it might be useful. For example, I have worked in management consulting for the past 12 years, but recently had to leave because the lifestyle did not suit my new family situation (i have a 15 month old daughter). Flexible working hours, possibility to work remotely and weekends retricted travel requirements would have been very useful. My company reasoned that clients paid us to be there wherever and whenever they needed us. But if consultancies set the ground rules for working hours, I think clients will be more than willing to abide by it. Afterall, we are people too.

  • Fredster

    Good post ... Some consultancies do this now. I work for one.
    Keep looking, you'll find it. In the mean time only accept interviews with companies that embrace at least some remote work and broadcast respect for contributors like you who exhibit personal creative drive to ensure quality work ... whatever the hour. 

  • nigel_collin

    Adding to the value of using time to our advantage, it is also vital in helping businesses generate viable ideas. Great ideas fuel innovation yet ideas don't work 9 to 5, they often hit you when you least expect it, and don't hit you when you need them. Locking into 9 to 5 constricts creative flow. So we need mechanisms in place to use time to our ideas advantage.

    Having working on the ideas front line all my life I just wanted to thank you for your article

  • Tommy Walker

    I love the idea behind the "No Hour" work week. 

    As a self employed consultant, I do the "No Hour" work week, but often times it turns into the all hour work week. 

    I really appreciate that you've given the frame work in order to put a little more structure around it. 

    As for what you guys do at Betterment... Big fan :-) 

  • Mickey Dunaway

    I am a college professor retired from K-12 education after 35 years. Now in my 7th year, I have finally become comfortable doing most of prep work at home. My face work is with my classes and by working in a prep environment that gives me freedom choice of when to work - I am the most productive and creative of my careers.

  • Jonathan Stein

    Jon Stein, founder and CEO of Betterment. We're helping people live better through better personal finance. Thanks to all for the great comments. I agree with  and ; not everyone has the luxury of being able to work from home or come and go as they please. Doctors have a shift they have to cover. The key is to respect boundaries and independence, and allow people time to recharge, and your people will form a more cohesive and productive team when you do so.

  • SimplyDefined

    Do you think this kind of approach can only work for certain industries - lets say industries that dont't require significant in-person client/customer contact?