Shorter workdays are hardly the norm in U.S. business life. If anything, businesses have moved to an "always available" model, where their employees are on call via smartphone and laptop, no matter what the official business hours. According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, the average workweek is 47 hours.
Still, long hours are not correlated with productivity. In fact, productivity has been shown to clearly fall as hours at work rise. So one of the innovations on the margins of U.S. business life is a shorter workday. Can working less keep businesses as productive as the standard 40 hours a week or more? Can it lead to business innovation?
Fostering Innovation, and Leading from It
At least one entrepreneur answers a hearty yes. Tower Paddle Boards head Stephan Aarstol writes in Fast Company that his move to a five-hour rather than eight-hour day kept employees as productive after it as before it.
Why? In part, because Aarstol explicitly charged employees with keeping their productivity up. It was part of the deal in moving to the shorter work week. Employees whose productivity fell significantly would be terminated. Employees were further incentivized with a 5% profit sharing instituted at the same time as the shortened hours.
Aarstol believes that a shorter work week functions well partly because of the Pareto Principle, in which 80% of production stems from 20% of the effort. Since employees were tasked with a high productivity bar, they were effectively incentivized to identify the most important part of their tasks from a production standpoint. What is the most important 20%? 30%? 40%?
Tower Paddle Boards innovated in several areas, including automating their warehouse operations and customer service, which went proportionally more online rather than being handled on a 9 to 5 office schedule via phone. Video tutorials helped to outsource customer service to the customers themselves.
The digital transformation of businesses, however, also played a role. The shortened workweek could result in equal productivity partly because so many functions could be handled digitally. As Aarstol himself notes, rather than being a paddle board company, "we're more of an online marketing agency that happens to own a surf brand."
A Model for U.S. Business?
Despite the fact that shorter work weeks have been shown to increase innovation, most observers think they will not become a feature of U.S. business life.
Why? First, it's a performance visibility issue. Most businesses still measure employee performance and commitment, at least in part, by hours spent. In many businesses, working long hours or being always available is the path to the fast track.
Second, it is partly a metrics issue. While many organizations measure employee hours, there is far less consistency in measuring productivity. No standard, easy-to-operationalize measure exists across sectors.
Third, there is no simple model of implementation. How would entrepreneurs thinking about how to start a business enact a shorter workweek? The paddle board example is one, but it may not be applicable to all sectors.
While Sweden's experiment shortened work weeks seems to be successful, it is confined primarily to nursing home workers.
In short, while a shortened workweek might foster innovation in sectors that have embraced digital transformation, adoption may be more complicated or viewed as less viable than a lengthened workweek.