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HR mythbusting: Is nine to five the most productive way to work?

Our series by Adrian Furnham and Ian MacRae explores what myths HRDs should be seeking to debunk in 2018

We are all supposed to want a good work/life balance. Perhaps some people are after more time with the family, or to pursue hobbies. Even people who work eight hours a day, 40 hours a week tend to end up working more than that. Emails and mobile phone messages still come in after work. Expectations and deadlines don’t stop after the sun goes down.

There is a Japanese term – Karoshi – which can be translated as 'overwork death'. This is not a happy state of affairs. It is indicative of a culture of overwork in Japan where more than a quarter of workers rack up 80-plus hours every week. It has been linked to heart attacks and stress-related suicide. This culture also exists in many other countries and industries.

Conversely, many people still work regular 35- or 40-hour work weeks in a more conventional setting, at the same times Monday to Friday. This typical working schedule initially came about from a culture of overwork in the early 20th century. Richard Owen was a social reformer and campaigner against overwork and over-demanding workplaces during the Industrial Revolution. Owen said society should aim for: “Eight hours' labour. Eight hours' recreation. Eight hours' rest". Thus a 24-hour day should be split evenly between work, leisure and sleep.

Companies that initially adopted this typical working schedule quickly found benefits for employee productivity. Ford was quicker to adopt this 40-hour work week than its competitors and found the change doubled profitability within two years. Yet workplaces have continued to change and adapt, and this rigid 40-hour working week might not be the best way to structure work.

The problems with an eight-hour work day

The nature of work and workplaces has been changing and continues to change rapidly. The number of remote workers, flexible working schedules, flexitime and the like mean a traditional 40-hour, nine to five work week is becoming less common. The workplace, work tasks and emails are instantly accessible on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. It is possible to take work home at any time of the day or night.

In the UK there is a rapidly rising number of employees who access their work emails at home; 81% of office workers check their email outside working hours, with a third of employees even checking their emails before they get out of bed in the morning. Even if employees officially spend 40 hours per week in the office, in practice a nine to five day probably does not accurately reflect how much work employees are actually doing.

Yet not all work is necessarily a problem. Good, meaningful and engaging work can provide a sense of wellbeing and personal satisfaction. There may be problems with the rigidity of the traditional 40-hour workday. There are different approaches to this. In 2000 France reduced its working hours from 39 to 35 hours a week, making it one of the shortest in the world.

The evidence is mixed as to whether this had the desired effect. Estevao and Sa examined the effectiveness of this policy change. They reported that France’s law did not create more jobs and promoted behavioural changes that suggested many workers were less happy with their working hours. Moreover, very few of France’s white-collar workers actually work only 35 hours a week. Their suggestions for policy change are that the 35-hour work week should be stopped and employees and firms should be free to choose the length of the working week.

The future of working

Flexible working (also known as flexitime) is an increasingly important part of the contemporary workplace. Flexitime is defined as the variation in working patterns where an individual can choose when their working day starts and ends and whether to work from home, the office etc. There are great benefits to this way of working.

The measurable productivity benefits are real; Lloyds Banking Group reported that 66% of line managers and colleagues considered that flexibility improved efficiency and productivity. Greater flexibility also means an improved ability to meet clients and customer demands on a 24/7 schedule. Notably, employees who have more flexibility are more likely to be engaged and firms will have reduced turnover.

A prime example of a company that has moved to using flexitime to great effect is Ryan. It moved away from regular or mandatory working hours to measuring employees exclusively on their performance and output. Getting rid of the nine to five reduced turnover to a third of the industry average. Client satisfaction went up from 92% to 98%. Before this change only 42% of employees said they had a good work/life balance, which increased to 90% after.

It is clear that flexible working arrangements, when done well, are a much more productive and happier way of working. It is a trend that is likely to continue to be embraced in more companies.

Ian MacRae is director of High Potential and co-author of Myths of Work with Adrian Furnham.

Check back tomorrow for the last in our series of mythbusting pieces by MacRae and Furnham

Further reading

HR mythbusting: Is there 'hidden' brainpower waiting to be unlocked?

HR mythbusting: Can people be sorted into personality categories at work?