The “nine-to-five job” is based on a model less than 100 years old, and it’s about time we rethink it.
Imagine living in a world of forever, three-day weekends.
In college, I got a glimpse of that reality.
Freshman year, my academic advisor informed me and my peers that we could plan our own schedules and I used my newfound agency to enroll in classes Monday through Thursday, leaving Fridays completely free. Over the next three years, I somehow managed to maintain that schedule — until I graduated and got my first job.
Like most employers in America, the nonprofit that hired me encouraged their workers to put in eight hours a day, five days a week. Over time, they recognized what I discovered during my undergrad: People are more productive when we have the option to work flexibly. Soon I was able to negotiate a four-day workweek, but the experience was largely an exception.
As I grew in my career, I shifted back to a long week and put in more hours, often to the point of burning out. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I decided to quit full-time work, set up my own consultancy practice, and reclaim control over my schedule.
The five-day workweek only became a thing in the early 20th century.
While I found my way back, I wasted years miserably grinding to climb the proverbial career ladder. If you find yourself in a similar position, here’s what I want you to know: You don’t have to work a certain number of hours to be productive. The concept of “time” is entirely man-made, the classification of a “week” is arbitrary, and if you look back far enough, you’ll see that the 40-hour workweek is a short-lived phenomenon.
Let me explain…
The Random History of Time and Labor
Several thousands of years ago, every civilization had their own measure of time. The Romans, for instance, had a 10-day week. The neighboring Egyptians followed a calendar with eight days in a week. The seven-day week, as we know it, was coined by the Babylonians, who believed in seven celestial bodies (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). This concept slowly spread around the world to other cultures, including the Jews, the Persian Empire, the Greeks, and finally to the Romans, who made it official.
The five-day workweek only became a thing in the early 20th century.
Well into the Industrial Revolution, the average employee worked 10 to 14 hours a day for six to seven days a week. This went on through the early 1900s when employees finally began to form unions, and despite being met with much resistance from their employers, they demanded shorter workdays. This demand was partly a result of scarce opportunities that had to be shared among a large, employable workforce. Shorter workdays were expected to create more demand for workers, and also boost their wages.
A major shift, however, occurred in 1926, when Henry Ford’s car company, Ford Motor Co., switched to a 40-hour workweek. But Ford’s decision was not driven by his generosity or care for his employee’s wellbeing. He wanted to sell cars to his own workers, who he believed would be better customers if they had more time off (and he was right).
The 40-hour workweek has stayed with us since.
My point is this: While “the nine-to-five job” feels pre-ordained, it’s based on an exploitative model less than 100 years old, and it’s about time we rethink it.
The Case for a Four-Day Workweek
Remember a few minutes ago when you imagined that glorious life with a permanent, three-day weekend? Well, in some countries, people are already living out your dream.
Recently, Iceland conducted a trial of 2,500 workers who moved from a 40-hour week to a 35- or 36-hour week. The results confirmed that shorter workweeks improved work-life balance. Further, participants reported feeling less burned out and more productive and happier. Now, countries like Spain, Denmark, and New Zealand are following suit.
The four-day workweek is not a new concept, but Covid and its impact on the corporate world have been a catalyst for its gaining popularity. The work-from-home arrangement in the last year has pushed many of us to question the industrialist model of going into the office every day. It has also made us rethink what we want our workplace to look like. As offices open in some parts of the world, employees are asking for more flexibility in the way they organize their time — and for good reason.
The flexibility to control our own schedules is integral to our contributions at work.
Even before coronavirus turned our world upside down, numerous studies documented the impact of long working hours. The modern-day workplace, with computers, laptops, and long commutes, has brought upon us a range of stressors such as burnout, chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, loneliness, increased competition, and a number of other health problems. We’ve been in need of a more sustainable work schedule for a while now.
What if Your Employer Isn’t Offering a Four-Day Week?
Your employer may very well be one of the many that still has not wound four-day workweeks into their policy. Know that you have the power to ask for it — and negotiate when possible. Often, it only takes a handful of people to drive this kind of change.
The first step is to pitch a four-day workweek experiment to your manager. This is how I negotiated a four-day week in my first job out of college. I told my boss that based on my previous experience (and the research) managing my time differently would be better for my productivity, reduce my commutes, and even save costs for the company. Luckily, my manager agreed to let me try it out, and within a year, our entire team had switched to a shorter week.
If you want to have this conversation with your own boss, here are a few strategies to help you get started.
1) Track your productivity.
Do you have extra vacation or flex time you can use this month? If so, before approaching your boss, experiment with taking a couple of Fridays off in the next few weeks and notice how that impacts your productivity. Make sure you have a clear and accurate way to measure your work output (and avoid simply tracking your hours).
For instance, compared to a five-day week: Were you able to meet the deadlines you set for yourself and deliver on projects? Were you able to attend all your meetings? Did you have enough time to connect with your team members in meaningful ways? Did you feel more focused, energized, or engaged one week over the other? Document your work schedule, including any obstacles you faced, as well as what worked well for you versus what didn’t.
If you find that you are more satisfied at work with the shorter work, it’s time to prepare for a larger conversation with your boss.
2) Think about how your decision would affect your colleagues.
Whether you’re an individual contributor or a manager, you’re likely to work with colleagues across different functions. Requesting a four-day schedule is going to impact your teammates and their work, so think about what exactly those impacts will be.
Would you have to figure out new ways of collaborating with certain team members? Would you have to reorganize the meetings you keep each day of the week? How would your team’s deliverables change if you were to move forward with this new schedule?
These are all questions you should be able to answer before approaching your boss.
You may be unsure if your coworkers even find a four-day workweek appealing. To gauge their interest, start by proposing your idea to a small group of trusted peers. Share the results of your experiment and see how they react. If their response seems favorable, you may want to encourage them to try the experiment themselves.
Bringing allies to your conversation with your boss and requesting flexible time as a group is likely to be more effective. That said, if you decide to move forward as a group (which I would suggest), make sure your colleagues are all in. It’s better to have fewer people who are fully committed than to have more people who are not.
The final step here is to work on a proposal for a more official four-day workweek experiment that you can then present to your manager as a team. Write out the key performance indicators (KPIs) you will measure, how you will measure them, and how you plan to set boundaries at work. For example, you may propose that by working one less day a week, you expect worker productivity to increase, and customer or audience engagement to increase by 30% as a result. Your KPIs will of course vary depending on what job or field you work in.
3) Have the conversation with your manager.
Once you’ve done your homework, you’re ready to have the chat with your manager. Like I mentioned, it will likely be more effective to approach them as a team, but either way, be mindful about how you reach out.
The first step is to set up a meeting with the intent of sharing your views. Either you or a teammate could take the lead on this. I recommend giving your boss a heads up about the purpose of the meeting to set some expectations. Let them know that the group wants to share a proposal focused on re-thinking the work schedule and you would be incredibly grateful for a little of their time. (Do not bring up this issue during a regular team meeting. It will catch your manager by surprise and make it harder for them to respond.)
During the conversation, put your views forth in a straightforward way.
Start with something like, “Numerous other innovative companies are trying the four-day workweek to boost creativity and productivity. We’d like to work with you on an experiment for a month to see if we can make this happen. We’ve brainstormed a few ways to measure our results. We think this experiment will demonstrate our innovative spirit as a department to the larger company and show that we are making a real effort to adjust to this new world of work. Is this an idea you’d entertain?”
In this post-pandemic world, intelligent employers will see these shifts in our thinking and questioning of the nine-to-five workday as a good thing.
Next, share your proposal, which should include how you want the experiment to run and how you aim to measure your success as a team. Perhaps, you could replicate the model you used for your own productivity tracking — spend two weeks working four days and the rest working for five days.
Leave room for your manager to share their thoughts, concerns, and feedback during this conversation. They may have questions about the specific details, like the hard and soft boundaries you will set around your work: Will we email after hours? What will Fridays look like? What kinds of crises can the team preventatively plan for?
4) Test the experiment.
If you get the green light, nail down a start date. Once the experiment begins, you may find it useful to have a recurring team meeting at the end of each week during which you can reflect on how people are feeling and being impacted by this trial period.
Was everyone able to follow through on setting hard boundaries around their time? Were there urgent texts or emails that spilled over to day five? Has the team met or effectively worked towards the KPIs you set in your proposal? Are there some members who prefer to work five days compared to four? How has everyone’s personal productivity and self-care been affected?
Share these reflections with your manager and get their feedback. When the experiment comes to an end, you should have all of the information you need to do a full evaluation and come to a consensus around how to move forward.
If your manager denies your initial proposal, don’t give up. Revisit the conversation again in a few months. We are living in times of rapid change and your boss may feel differently one week or month to the next.
If, however, you encounter a situation where your employer is not open to this discussion at all, it could mean that you are working for an organization that doesn’t value change or innovation. Remember that you’re not at fault for making a request. Use the moment to reflect on whether your company is a long-term fit for you and your career growth.
In this post-pandemic world, intelligent employers will see these shifts in our thinking and questioning of the nine-to-five workday as a good thing. The flexibility to control our own schedules is integral to our contributions at work. The big question is: How many employers are willing to evolve beyond what the industrialists handed us in 1926?
Whether or not your employer aligns with this changing world, I encourage you to take action and empower yourself to reclaim your time.
This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review on Monday 6 September.