Forty Hour Work Weeks
4 min read

Forty Hour Work Weeks

Why are we still so focused on working 40 hours a day? Why continue to "work" till 5pm when you've finished your work?
Forty Hour Work Weeks
"Workers on the first moving assembly line put together magnetos and flywheels for 1913 Ford autos" Highland Park, Michigan

Eight hours a day; forty hours a week. That's what's habitually ingrained into manager's routine and expectations. Show up, make sure your status light is green, and then do stuff for eight hours. That's the status quo. Work eight hours doing stuff until the bell rings. Finish early? Work efficiently? Slide down the slippery slope of doing more. Contrary to the status quo, measuring productivity in remote work has nothing to do with how many hours you put in, but how effective you and your employees are. It's not about how much work you can cram into eight hour days. Forcing hours is an old school way of thinking that needs to end if we want to be successful with remote work.

Is forty-hours an arbitrary number? Was it chosen because it can be broken up into eight even chunks over five days? Does the number have any significance in actual productivity? To better understand why we've standardized on forty hours, it's important to know were we were before.

Before the industrial revolution, employees would work over eighty hours a week, which was a huge sacrifice on their bodies, minds, and their families. People were absolutely exhausted and change was necessary. After eight-hour work day was mandated by Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Ford recognized the benefits of the forty-hour work week. He noticed that anything above forty hours would show a minimal increase in productivity that was short lived. Keep in mind, this is before information workers existed. Those jobs were mostly mechanical. Today, most of our modern remote work is informational and involved internet connected computers.

Over work is the number one cause of burnout of the working class today. It's the number one reason why workers are quitting today during what many are calling the "Great Resignation".

Researchers for financial firm Jefferies asked young Americans (ages 22 to 35) who had quit their jobs recently what their former bosses could have done to persuade them to stay. Thirty-two percent said they would have stayed if they'd been offered a four-day work week. That was the second most-common answer, right behind the 43% who would have stayed for more money. CNN Business

Keep in mind, the 40 hour work week was signed into law by Roosevelt in 1938, nearly 84 years ago. This was the year the ballpoint pen was invented! Things have unequivocally changed since then, especially in the last few years. Now we have the internet, and most workers now have over a year of experience working remotely.

One argument for a shorter work week is that wages haven't budged much, but the cost of living has skyrocketed. In Iceland, the four day work week trial saw less burnout and stress with no reduction in productivity. Scotland, Sweden, and Japan are also trying out a four day work week. Additionally, the US congress is gaining support the four day work week and Microsoft's trial increased productivity by 40%

Personally, I've worked remotely for over ten years. I put myself through college by remotely building software for companies, worked for a number of enterprises supporting both remote and in-person work, slept under my desk, and done 80-hour work weeks.  In my experience, it's not about doing more with less time, it's about doing more focused work with less distractions. Working less has never resulted in getting less done. It's a coincidence that it affords you more time to yourself, but it's no coincidence that it affords a less stressed and happier lifestyle.

There are plenty of companies who experiment with a four day work week. There are also companies who don't track hours. The best books in the world don't have more words, they have more meaning. This is true for so many other products. More code doesn't mean more software just as more duct tape doesn't mean a stronger house.

So if Microsoft can prove that a forty-hour work week increases productivity, and many countries around the world can do the same, then why isn't this fast-tracked as the norm? Why haven't other large companies adopted it yet? Weariness. They're fearful of changing things up.  There are the unknowns of not having done it before and there hasn't been not enough pressure to change.

The pandemic has forced a lot of companies to go remote unexpectedly. It give experience into the issue of not having done it before, but most companies are doing it wrong™.

I don't know why, but the metaphor of public restroom paper towels comes to mind. You know, the kind that's barely thick enough to be considered 1-ply? The ones you need 400 of to dry your hands? That's what 40-hours feels like to me. You could buy better paper towels, or reusable ones that are far more absorbent and durable, but most places don't. They don't have to. They don't care about the waste or having to change the towels more often.


This is one of many posts I plan to write about remote work. You can find all of them here.

P.S. be sure to check out The Noob Show, my podcast about remote work.

Links to read more:

Notes

  • There's no question that remote work is here to stay.
  • Butts in seats
  • Status Light
  • Eight hours a day is arbitrary
  • History of the forty hour work week
  • Countries experimenting with 4 day work weeks
  • Who cares how much you work when you get the job done?
  • Not all jobs are mechanical, most remote work isn't and we need to acknowledge that
  • When the eight hours if over, often with remote work, especially for those who are new to it during the pandemic, will notice that they work more than they ever have (this is bad).
  • Getting paid less moving away and going remote in a cheaper location (stupid, you're not worth less. Yes the company san "save money" but it shouldn't dock people's pay who do this. They get away with it now because they can, but it shouldn't be the norm)