21 May

The Mythical 8 Hour Workday

For most of the modern era, certainly in the time since industrialization of the US and Western Europe, "work" as a concept has managed to stay an entity that somehow exists in a mythological realm outside of normal life. People go to work and come home and somehow, the two states (working and not) are two separate non-overlapping bubbles. Rules and social constructs that wouldn't fly in personal life, like strict hierarchical structures, the 9-5 eight hour work day standard and two week notices have become synonymous with businesses. While these concepts are necessary in manufacturing and retail settings where the practices originated and where shift coverage is needed to maintain operations, the vast majority of work in the US, estimated at 60%+, is now "white collar" work. Do so called traditional work practices still hold true as "best practices" in the modern white collar work environment or are they simply causing undue stress? I would argue resoundingly for the later.

This is the first article in a series analyzing modern work practices that probably should have died a long time ago in favor of incorporating practices into our modern lifestyle rather than treating work and home as separate realms with diametrically opposed rules and constructs.

Let's start with the 8 hour work day. When was the last time you sat down and did ANYTHING in your personal life for 8+ hours a day every single day for a week straight? I'd hazard that you probably haven't. What you probably did was short bursts of extreme productivity interspersed with periods of rest and recovery or moved to an unrelated task. When you realized you started to lose productivity or task focus, you probably stopped and rested or moved onto another task with a different context (i.e from labor intensive to creative or vice versa). If this is the pattern that people often naturally utilize when approaching tasks in their own life why then is this frowned upon in many, if not most, work places and instead workers are forced to sit largely unproductive for 8 hours? It makes absolutely no sense yet it's a tradition we still follow. The issue is so prevalent that, according to a UK study by www.vouchercloud.com, most office workers spent less productive time then they did non-productive. I think a lot of employers know this in the back of their minds but try to solve the problem with heavy handed policies or creating surveillance bureaucracies in an attempt to push their workers to do more in the same amount of the time. Unfortunately any practice that fails to account for the intricate of human nature is doomed to fail and employer expectation of "butt-in-seat" hour management tactics rather than utilizing objective measures of productivity are a prime example. A solution gaining strength is implementing flexible work day policies that better align with how most of us naturally work.

As an good executive, manager, or business owner, you should be thinking "well, that's great to know that the tradition work day doesn't lead to productivity and flexible work days can help but why should I consider moving to an alternative and what is the benefit for my organization?". That is a great question and I'm glad you asked... even if you didn't. There are direct benefits to implementing a flexible work day, ranging from increased productivity to better organization success. Though I haven't had the opportunity to launch a direct study, I've also noted a number of side benefits in my own work and the work of those I have managed over the years. When flexible work structures were allowed, employees showed increased family happiness, better perceived work life balance, increased organization loyalty and retention as well as more engagement in socially beneficial activity. If you want to read more about the benefits, details are discussed in a article on flexjobs.com that can be accessed HERE and read the original study the flexjobs.com article is based on (found HERE).

The trick to busting the 8 hour work day is structuring your policies properly to provide the correct balance of flexibility, accountability and parity. Instead of measuring straight butt-in-chair hours, set concrete goals for employees, or better yet let them set their own goals that you then agree upon, on whatever time unit makes the most sense for the individual and/or organization. After all, isn't the work completed the goal in the first place, not how long an employee sits there? For a sales team, this could be attached to an existing quota, conversion rate, number of new leads... etc. For engineers, it could be engineering tasks, project release timing or could even be tied into a process like Scrum where productivity could be measured by completion of completed user stories. No matter what the policy looks like exactly, it must be applied consistently for team member in similar roles, must be fair and achievable (i.e cannot turn into a death march based on unrealistic goals), and must meet the needs of both the organization and team members. Early in the rollout, a bit of additional oversight is usually required to make sure work isn't expanding to fit the time frame when additional work could be completed. A little bit of trust and accountability goes a long way.

Beyond the examples in the previous paragraph, unfortunately no universal flexible hour formula exists. Each organization has different needs, structures, cultures and regulatory requirements, all of which need to be properly accounted for to produce the desired outcome. For example, if your organization's culture values face to face teamwork or random collisions to solve problems and generate work output, a policy that allows employees to work mostly from home or whatever hours they choose individually would be a terrible idea where as a "core hours" policy where people can work whatever hours they like as long as they are in the office between x and y times or allowing teams to determine their group common work hours may work just fine. I was once part of a project where we agreed to work "whatever it takes" to get the project done and then take a paid breather after we met our goals. Not only did we hit extremely aggressive goals, the team came back from the short break ready for what was next. I'd even go so far as to call it one of my favorite projects, even though I voluntarily (key word here) came close to sleeping under my desk a few nights. This is, of course an extreme edge case example and PROBABLY shouldn't be the norm. Oh, and parity must also be accounted for to keep groups with different needs within the same organization from feeling like another group is getting preferential treatment.

Even though I couldn't give you a solid recommendation here in this article about how to implement a flexible time policy of your own, I can give you an example of how I have applied flex working to my own work week in my current endeavors. I work roughly 50 to 55 hours per week under normal circumstances with "crunch weeks" coming close to 100 hours but RARELY work an 8 hour work day. I used to think I was unique in my productive work style but years of experience has shown that I'm really not and most people work MUCH better if you gave them more flexibility. What follows is what I do myself now and is similar to a previous policy I have set for a team I oversaw.

Each week, I set objectives and mentally group them by "must finish", "want to finish" and "nice to finish" making sure that the tasks I outlined as must and want to finish tasks can likely be completed within the week. My weekly tasks may have a degree of variety to them from writing an article like this one, learning something new that I need to grow personally (this is very important and will be the topic of a future article), complete technical work or do some of the grindy tasks that come along with running my own business (i.e accounting, paying bills). Other times, my tasks are just a list of the stuff needed to complete a focused project or product that may or may not need to be done in a particular order.

Either way when I wake up, barring a burning "must do" task, I determine if I am ready to work or not. Sometimes I wake up with a million ideas rushing through my head and want to get right down to work while other days I need to drink my cup of caffeinated beverage and work on a knowledge task like reading business trend news or even watching an informative video online. In either case, I may get straight down to business and knock out a task in 3 hours that would normally take 12+ hours and then call it a day or I may get hyper focused on something and work 16 hours, only breaking to eat and use the bathroom. Most of the time, I work in short bursts of productivity; 3 hours of ultra focused work until I feel the task is complete followed by doing something fun like shooting a few rounds of archery, sitting outside to ponder a problem I still haven't solved, running an errand, or doing something inane like seeing what some of my more interesting friends are up to on social media and then get another 3+ hour burst of extreme productivity. The pattern generally repeats until I am mentally worn out for the day.

Ultimately, my total "work day" could be 3-ish hours or it could be 16 hours totally roughly 50-55 hours with my head in the game and the time in between spent doing other less productive activities. In any case, most of my creative bursts (design, writing, new ideas etc) happen later in the evening between 8:00PM and 10:00PM and most of my engineering breakthroughs happen on days when I get up and just "feel" the task first thing in the morning. My least productive time is usually 2:30PM to 6:00PM. If I forced myself into an 8 hour butt-in-seat work day during normal business hours, I estimate I would work about 15 hours a week even though I spent 50+ hours "working" instead of a productive 50 - 55 hours as I would spend a lot of time doing absolutely nothing or working very poorly/unproductively. Even my mental breaks are productive in this pattern. Some of my breaks are just time to think about nothing at all which allows my brain time to put together disparate thoughts already floating around in my head and have a lightbulb moment when I sit back down to work.

Many of the most highly productive workers I have worked with or managed and most of the successful entrepreneur I have met appear to have similar patterns in their day. The time of day when they are most productive at a particular task can be quite different though.

Shameless Self Promotion: If you want to give a flexible work/week a try in your org and need help coming up with a policy for your organization, please contact us HERE. We are more than happy to help!