What happened to the 40 hour work week?
In the post-pandemic world, changes to the standard work week have accelerated
In 2009, author Tim Ferris made a splash with his non-fiction book, The 4-Hour Work Week.
The title sounded like a preposterous play on words for the typical 40- or 50-hour work week. But could it actually work?
Ferris detailed a practical plan that advocated for outsourcing menial tasks to online virtual assistants, working remotely, and then moving where the cost of living is lower so you could get the most impact for your salary.
Today, this vision doesn’t sound so far-fetched, and plenty of companies and workers have experimented with shorter work weeks, remote or hybrid schedules, and “work anywhere” policies.
As employee retention becomes critical, here are factors employers should consider related to schedules, flexibility and changing generational norms.
Impacts of the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated remote work for many, and traditional ideas about office hours, productivity and the need for 40-50 traditional work week hours started to break down. Employees proved they could be productive from home, and many began to question the need for extended hours at the office, which was once seen as a sign of commitment and dedication.
This didn’t necessarily mean that workers were putting in less time – quite the opposite in some cases. Remote work also blurred the line between personal life and work, which led to increased work hours for some. At the same time, some found that they preferred to put in even longer hours – what became known as the “triple peak” of daily worker productivity – if they could fit them around personal life activities like childcare.
Expectations of Younger Generations
Younger generations, such as Millennials and Gen Z, generally prioritize work-life balance more than their predecessors, the Baby Boomers and Gen X. They tend to favor flexibility and control over their work schedules, even if it means accepting a lower salary.
In fact, work flexibility is the top reason why Gen Z and Millennial workers will stay put in their current role, according to a new report from McKinsey & Company. These generations are also more likely to job hop if current roles do not meet their expectations for a balanced life, so providing a work environment that meets their needs is the top priority to holding onto existing young talent.
Many companies have been reassessing their expectations in response to these shifts. Flexible hours, remote work and increased emphasis on productivity rather than hours worked are becoming more common. Some companies are testing or have already implemented four-day work weeks or reduced hours with no loss in pay to promote increased productivity and employee satisfaction.
However, it's important to note that this is not universal, and many companies, especially those in more traditional industries, still expect longer work weeks. Some sectors, like technology and startups, often demand extended hours due to high competition and the speed of innovation. And of course, many sectors such as hospitality, education or healthcare doesn’t always provide the ability to do work remotely or on a worker’s preferred schedule.
Overall, the expectation of a 50-hour work week for salaried employees is decreasing, but the pace and extent of this change varies widely by industry, company, and region. The post-pandemic world has certainly accelerated these changes, and as younger generations make up a larger portion of the workforce, it is likely that these trends will continue.
Discuss these trends in our Living as a Leader book club on the third Tuesday each month 11:00 AM Central Time (Chicago). Learn more.