When you’re asked to visualize an average workday, which hours come to mind? Most people would say 9 to 5, which makes sense—that’s the traditional 8-hour workday.
Here’s another question: What’s considered the typical number of hours for a full-time job? 40 hours. Why? Quick math calculates that when an employee works on weekdays for 8 hours each day, 5 days a week, they work 40 hours.
The numbers are all familiar ones. 8-hour workdays, 5 workdays each week, and 40 total hours of work equal a traditional, American, full-time job. These numbers are ingrained in most of our country’s working population, but why is it these numbers, specifically?
It isn’t arbitrary, as many may think. Instead, there’s a rich history behind the origins of the 8-hour workday. However, entrepreneurs, career coaches, and productivity gurus alike are questioning more and more the true value of the eight hour block. After all, the workforce continues to evolve along with technologies that supplement working capabilities and provide additional flexibility.
So, will the 8-hour workday stick around?
Who Invented The 8-Hour Workday
Whether or not you think it’s true that the 8-hour workday is necessary for today’s working population, there used to be an incredibly valid reason for its existence.
Before the 8-Hour Workday
During the Industrial Revolution, which took place between 1760 and 1840, the working man had one goal—increase factory output as much as possible. In other words, industry leaders wanted their operations functional 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This ambitious goal led to incredibly long, inhumane workdays for factory workers, and it wasn’t uncommon for laborers to work as many as 16 hours each day.
In fact, it was more normal to bathe, eat, sleep, and experience recreation for 8 hours each day than it was to work for 8 hours. While this did temporarily mean that factories increased output and came closer to their goal of 24/7 productivity, the unreasonably long workdays eventually resulted in diminishing returns.
The Rise of Change and a New Standard
As the overall health and productivity of the workforce waned, it became apparent that sustaining this kind of workload wasn’t productive. British human rights advocate Robert Owen became the voice of the workforce by initiating a campaign for more reasonable working hours. The slogan that gained him traction amongst the industrial workforce was, “8 hours labor, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.”
It seems reasonable, right?
At the time, it certainly was, and it was only a matter of time before this healthier approach to work became the norm.
Adopting Owen’s Ideals
As expected, not all companies jumped on this idea right away. The concept was a foreign one and an idea that didn’t scream “productivity” and “output” to business owners and factory leaders who craved results. All of this changed when a couple of major companies adopted Owen’s suggestion and proved that it could actually lead to incredible results.
The Ford Motor Company was one of the first major businesses and manufacturers to adopt the much shorter 8-hour workday, and Ford proved that it could work. When Ford finally implemented this strategy in 1914, after many years of too-long (and arguably inhumane) working conditions, he cut the workday in half while doubling his employees’ pay.
Incredibly, this resulted in massive increases for Ford’s company and a two-year profit doubling that soon sent other businesses scrambling to implement the same strategy.
A Stubborn Expectation
Since then, the 8-hour workday has stuck around as a standard for productivity and success, but it’s not until recently that its continued effectiveness has come into question. Whereas many people may assume that the 8-hour workday exists as a result of some scientific formula or research that has proven it to work, the truth remains that this 9 to 5 mindset has persisted only as a result of a campaign to protest the unfortunate expectations of the workforce during the Industrial Revolution.
In other words, the relevance of the 8-hour workday in the 21stcentury is questionable, at best. Still, it hasn’t really gone anywhere, as evidenced by the very existence of this article and why so many people still wonder, “Why am I working specifically 8 hours each day?”
The Then and Now
These days, working conditions have changed, thanks to the rapid evolution of technology and the increasing roles it plays in a variety of industries. Not only have the additions of new project management software like Hive, technology syncing between desktop and mobile devices, and the increasing prevalence of cloud-based services revolutionized the way that the modern workforce approaches its projects, but options for communication have skyrocketed, too.
Technology has effectively changed the culture of the traditional workplace by making communication easier, increasing the speed of collaboration and progress, and allowing more flexible options for qualified employees to contribute remotely.
Today’s Workday Trends
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of hours worked per day by all employees (including both full-time and part-time employees) is 7.99 hours. Full-time workers, on the other hand, work more (8.5 hours each day). According to these statistics, the 8-hour workday trend is still in full force, but some institutions are rising to the challenge of change.
Not long ago, Microsoft Japan implemented an experiment to test out a 4-day workweek, giving employees each Friday off. Initially, this raised a number of questions, but it was Microsoft that had the last laugh. By the end of their experiment, calculations were made that led to a startlingly positive conclusion—the employees who had been allowed 3-day weekends saw a 40% increase in their productivity throughout their newly cut work hours.
The Influence of Remote Work
Plenty of workers are also introducing changes to the norm by choosing the hours they work at home. What’s also important to remember (and something that most people take for granted due to the prevalence of mobile devices and how much time is spent on them) is that remote work can also be categorized by all of those moments when people take time out of their “8 hours of recreation” to read and subsequently answer an email from their workplace.
This “work,” which many people perform during their time off out of habit or a feeling of obligation, is frequently unpaid and therefore not always accounted for in statistics describing hours of work performed each day and each week.
Sure, this might be seen as a bad thing, but it can also contribute greatly to the notion that the workweek can be shorter with less consequence than business owners might expect. Remember Microsoft Japan? More rest and a healthier separation between work and a recreational weekend meant great things. This certainly can’t the only instance where we’d see this result.
The Workday’s Future?
However workday trends continue, and whatever number of hours becomes the new norm for the average workday, one thing is for certain—changing trends will mean increased productivity. Just as Robert Owen spoke up against the counterproductive workplace practices of his time, so too are various voices hoping to become the new mouthpiece for the modern employee.
Change can be good, though, as demonstrated by Owen and Ford’s introduction of what, at the time, was a radical policy. As long as business leaders remain receptive to new ideas, the American workforce will continue to challenge itself to reach new heights with new standard practices.