The 40-hour week has set the pace for American workers since 1940, when the government made this the normal workweek two years after passing the Fair Labor Standards Act. But new studies on employee wellness and productivity suggest the ideal schedule could be even shorter—especially when combined with the benefits of working from home for employers and employees.
Is it time for your business to adapt a shorter workweek? Here's what you need consider before making a switch.
Ways to Shorten the Workweek
If you'd like to try reducing your workweek, there are a few ways to structure employee schedules. One option is switch to shorter days; perhaps six hours per day versus the more traditional eight. You could also have your employees come in fewer days per week. Another option is to give employees flexibility to set their hours, so they can work as much or as little as they need, provided they complete their work.
These recommendations work best for salaried employees, who get paid the same regardless of how long they work. If you shorten the workweek for hourly workers, they'll be making less money so they won't see it as a benefit.
If you're uncomfortable having your employees work fewer hours, you could give them the option to work remotely instead. The average U.S. commute is 26.1 minutes each way, according to the latest data from the United States Census Bureau, so one of the top benefits of working from home is that your employees save close to an hour a day in travel time.
Benefits of a Shorter Workweek
More focused, efficient employees. Have you ever spent the last hour of a workday just counting down the minutes until 5 p.m.? Chances are your employees have too as they find ways to fill up their entire day. By trimming down the workweek, your employees may end up delivering the same results just by getting rid of busy work like unnecessary meetings, chats by the water cooler and browsing the internet.
Lower stress and better health. When employees are putting in too many hours, that's less time to sleep and relax. Not only does this increase employee stress, it could also eventually turn into health problems that lead to sick days and higher insurance costs. Lowering your workweek gives employees more time to take care of themselves.
As you experiment with your shorter workweek, continue surveying employees to see what they like about the new system and what could be improved.
Reduced turnover and hiring advantage. At a time when other companies are pushing employees to their breaking point, you can stand out by having reduced hours. Your current employees will be reluctant to give this up for another job and you'll gain a hiring edge versus the competition.
Less overhead. Every hour your office is open leads to more money spent on electricity, heat/air conditioning and maintenance. By reducing the time employees spend in your workplace, you could reduce your overhead.
Concern/risk over getting started. While the benefits of a shorter workweek may sound great in theory, it can be stressful to try something new, especially when you have deadlines coming up.
Employee adjustment process. After a lifelong career of 40-hour workweeks, your employees may have trouble mentally adjusting to something lower. Maybe they won't be able to keep up with their work and some could even get stressed having too much downtime.
Industry challenges. If you're in an industry where the workflow needs to continue, like running a factory, every hour of downtime is an hour when you're aren't manufacturing product. Extra employee efficiency can't make up for the assembly line shutting down.
Keeping Your Employees Productive
As you plan how to set up a shorter workweek, these approaches can minimize the potential downsides.
Set productivity goals. Before moving an employee to reduced hours, set a baseline for their current performance (number of sales, customers served, etc.) You could make the shorter week contingent on them maintaining their current goals. This will also prevent employees from criticizing each other because they can see that they are on target and no one is slacking off.
Make fewer hours optional. Your employees know how much time they need to complete their work. As you schedule, give employees the options to request longer weeks. That way they aren't constantly looking to fill 40 hours when they don't need it but have the option to get more time when they do.
Collect employee feedback. Reach out to your employees for feedback on what type of reduced schedule they think would work best. For example, do they think they'd accomplish more with fewer days in the office or reduced hours per day? As you experiment with your shorter workweek, continue surveying employees to see what they like about the new system and what could be improved.
Stagger schedules. If you can't afford to shut down your business during normal business hours, consider staggering employee schedules so that not everyone takes time off on the same day. Your business will still operate on a full 9-to-5 schedule, even if every employee is not.
Continue face-to-face meetings for remote workers. While online productivity tools can help remote workers stay in touch, nothing replaces the impact of face-to-face meetings. Make sure to schedule at least some in-person days where everyone comes to the office. You could also upgrade your meeting rooms with screens and cameras for live chats with offsite staff. That way you combine the personal touch with the employee benefits of working remotely.
By experimenting with these approaches, you can find the balance that keeps your employees happy and healthy, while still maximizing their work efficiency. That way you can decide whether the 40-hour week still makes sense for your business—or if it's time to take on something shorter.
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