For American knowledge workers, the mantra ‘do more with less’ typically implies doing more work with fewer staff. That means more responsibilities and, subsequently, more overtime for a smaller workforce. But we’d like to offer an alternative approach: Consider reducing work hours to increase productivity.
Studies show that productivity actually decreases when employees work overtime. Perhaps even more surprising: Productivity increases when employees work fewer hours. For American companies whose employees typically work 8.8 hours a day, the idea of cutting short the work day to increase productivity may sound absurd. But our counterparts overseas have proven otherwise.
According to The Economist, “The Greeks are some of the most hardworking in the OECD, putting in over 2,000 hours a year on average. Germans, on the other hand, are comparative slackers, working about 1,400 hours each year. But German productivity is about 70% higher.”
Filimundus, an application developer based in Stockholm, Sweden, introduced a six-hour work day in 2015. “I think the eight-hour workday is not as effective as one would think,” CEO Linus Feldt told Fast Company. “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.”
Feldt has a point. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most people aren’t working the entire time they’re in the office. Instead, they’re reading news websites, checking social media, searching for a new job, and socializing with each other, among other things. In fact, Inc.com reports that the average worker is only productive for around three hours a day.
Filimundus isn’t the only company to reduce work hours. “Toyota centres in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, made the switch 13 years ago, with the company reporting happier staff, a lower turnover rate, and an increase in profits in that time,” reports The Independent.
Feldt also discovered an improvement in his team’s ability to collaborate. “The biggest response that I couldn’t foresee was the energy level I felt with my colleagues,” Feldt says about the switch to a six-hour work day. “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.”
Not only does productivity increase when employees are happy and well-rested, but personnel costs also decrease. As employees experience less stress, they lower their risk of chronic health conditions and therefore take fewer sick days. (The Guardian reports that “clocking up more than 55 hours a week means a 40% higher chance of developing an irregular heartbeat, known as atrial fibrillation (AF), when compared to those with a better work-life balance.”)
If the thought of reducing work hours raises your blood pressure, take baby steps. You might consider prohibiting overtime or instituting Friday half-days. Even flexible work schedules can make a difference in employee engagement. A mobile video conferencing solution can provide assurance that colleagues can easily connect regardless of location, while integrated presence technology can ensure that employees don’t interrupt each other when they’re focused on something other than work.
Even eliminating the commute time by allowing employees to work from home one or two days a week can have a significant, positive impact. Commutes take us away from our personal lives, can be extremely stressful, and contribute nothing to the company.
Finally, keep this in mind: The idea of reducing hours to increase productivity isn’t new. Ford Motor Company discovered this in 1914 when it established the 8-hour work day. The Guardian reports, “Ford’s original workers were found less productive working more than 40 hours a week, a situation likely to be even more the case for people who work with knowledge rather manually – who ever had their best ideas when they were exhausted?”