The eight-hour workday hasn't changed much since Henry Ford first experimented with it for factory workers. Now, Americans work slightly longer—an average 8.7 hours—though more time goes into email, meetings, and Facebook than whatever our official job duties actually are. Is it time to rethink how many hours we spend at the office?
In Sweden, the six-hour workday is becoming common.
"I think the eight-hour workday is not as effective as one would think," says Linus Feldt, CEO of Stockholm-based app developer Filimundus. "To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. . . . In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the workday more endurable. At the same time, we are having it hard to manage our private life outside of work. We want to spend more time with our families, we want to learn new things or exercise more. I wanted to see if there could be a way to mix these things."
Filimundus switched to a six-hour day last year, and says that the change hasn't really made a major difference in how people work. The leadership team just asked people to stay off social media and personal distractions, and eliminated some standard weekly meetings.
"My impression now is that it is easier to focus more intensely on the work that needs to be done and you have the stamina to do it and still have energy left when leaving the office," Feldt says.
The company is not alone. Brath, another tech startup, made the move three years ago. For them, one of the biggest advantages is that it helps them hire and keep employees, as the CEO writes in a blog post:
We also believe that once you’ve gotten used to having time for the family, picking up the kids at day care, spending time training for a race or simply just cooking good food at home, you don’t want to lose that again. We believe that this is a good reason to stay with us and not only because of the actual impact longer hours would make in your life but for the reason behind our shorter days. . . . We actually care about our employees.
It's also happening in the public sector. In one recent experiment, nurses at a government-run retirement home were able to switch to a six-hour day for the same pay. In that case, it did cost more money. But the costs were offset by better care for patients because nurses were less exhausted.
The retirement-home experiment is temporary, and may not become official policy. In the 1990s, some other Swedish retirement homes and day cares tested out six-hour days and then ended up switching back because of the cost. But the shift in private companies may happen more quickly.
At Filimundus, there haven't been any downsides to the change, and the company is squeezing the same amount of productivity into each day.
"Sure, there have been times when something is needed in an instant and a person is not available because they left the office, but that could happen in an eight-hour environment as well," Feldt says. "Some people would argue that it is a costly measure for the company, but that is based on a conventional conception that people are effective 100% of an eight-hour day."
Everyone who works at the company suddenly has more energy. "The biggest response that I couldn’t foresee was the energy level I felt with my colleagues," he says. "They were happy leaving the office and happy coming back the next day. They didn’t feel drained or fatigued. That has also helped the work groups to work better together now, when we see less conflicts and arguments. People are happier."
It's something that he sees as fundamental to the company's success.
"I believe that we value time more than money today," he says. "I am absolutely sure that more and more people would choose more free time before a high salary. Going from an eight-hour day to six has helped us spread the message that we invest in our staff. That we believe that a happy staff is the absolute top priority for a successful company. If your staff is happy, your company is happy."