The Ideal Work Week: How Many Hours Should You Work?

By Suzi Parkinson | August 9, 2018

You probably heard the buzz last week about the New Zealand company who experimented with a four-day, 32-hour workweek. If you have not, here is the scoop.

According to The New York Times, Perpetual Guardian, a firm that manages trusts, wills and estates, eliminated an entire day’s work from their typical five-day, 40-hour workweek for six weeks earlier this year. It was curious to see what this change would do for its 240 employees – and how it would affect the business. Employees were paid the same salary and were expected to complete the same amount of work. The focus was to keep productivity at its previous level.

It turns out that employees reported a 24 percentage point improvement in work-life balance. They said they spent more time with their families, exercising, cooking and working in their gardens and returned to work more energized. Staff stress levels were reduced by 7 percent, and team engagement levels increased in the categories of leadership, commitment, stimulation and empowerment – all while keeping job performance the same.

The company’s board is now considering making the shortened workweek permanent. Executives at the company reported that meetings became more efficient, with the usual two-hour meeting shortened to 30 minutes. Moreover, employees came up with ways to ensure their coworkers did not interrupt them during their focused work blocks. Some new processes were implemented that led to working smarter, not harder.

Other companies have experimented with flexible workweeks, usually offering employees the opportunity to do their 40 hours in fewer days to have an extra day off. Some organizations even require this type of swing shift, so they have coverage during evening or weekend hours. While I do not think you will get many arguments from employees getting paid for their 40 hours while only working 32, some critics on Twitter said they would not be interested in negotiating longer days for the extra day off. Coupled with the commute, it would not leave much time on working days for spending time with loved ones or pursuing personal interests.

This is proof that your employees will have a preference for what their workweek looks like. Before you implement flexible schedules, poll your workers to see what they think. The type of work will undoubtedly affect their opinions. Work that is strenuously physical or requires intense concentration may be better split over more days – for sanity and productivity reasons. While some might be motivated to work more efficiently or focused on getting that extra day off, frequent breaks may be what others need to feel revitalized in between work tasks.

Interestingly, according to Fast Company, a study conducted a few years ago by the Draugiem Group sought to understand the habits of their most productive employees. A time-tracking productivity app used for the research showed that 10 percent of the employees, who had the highest productivity and did not work longer hours than their coworkers, did not even work eight-hour days. They took regular breaks during their workday. To be specific, it added up to 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work. Breaks were spent away from devices and instead on something non-work related, like taking a walk, chatting with coworkers or reading a book.

So, a shortened workweek may work for some companies and not others. Or maybe work-life balance is better realized with the option to work remotely or take breaks. After all, some studies show we can only concentrate for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. The idea is that a one-size-fits-all approach is probably not the answer when it comes to length of workday or workweek. Therefore, make sure to consider that when you alter your workplace policy.

According to research conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 13 countries work more hours on average than the United States. New Zealand is not one of them, but there is not much significant difference. The country that worked the least number of hours per person was Germany, followed by Denmark and Norway. The hardest-working was Mexico, followed by Costa Rica and Korea. Some say Americans would be more motivated to work longer hours if we did not have a progressive tax code. Others say we should be determining what our business needs and not watching the clock.

What are your thoughts about how organizations should structure the work day?


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About the Author
Suzi Parkinson

Suzi Parkinson is Associate Vice President within Mission Control in London, specializing in Human Recourses.

She has spent the last seven years working in the recruitment industry in several multi-faceted roles.

Suzi focuses on global projects around compliance, HR systems and processes, and has created robust procedures that are streamlined and global.

She graduated from Exeter University with a 2:1 in Theology and Philosophy. Outside of GQR she loves ballet, live music, 80s films and traveling around European cities.

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