The stereotypical 9 to 5 job has been ensconced in our brains for a time that is monitored and monetized or what we call ‘working hours’. We have always contemplated the logic and definition of working time. In the 21st Century where the relation of time with, diets, sleep, education, and entertainment have been morphed around working time. In this article, I will explore the different cultures that have grown around working hours and explore the fundamental question that has recently come under the spotlight in the corporate world. Does reducing work hours lead to an increase in productivity?
The concept of working hours may have existed Pre- Industrial Revolution. However, it came into prominence with the advent of the Revolution. During this time there weren’t any regulatory measures to observe the hours spent at the job, which meant that working hours could go up to a staggering 16 hours a day. Furthermore, there were no ways to check whether having such a significant amount of time spent working led to increased efficiency. It was only after World War Two that working hours were stipulated and legalized. The extremely popular notion of 9 to 5 jobs came primarily because of technological advances, globalization and one other critical phenomenon– Competition. Individual competition between firms or competition between different industrial sectors lead to the establishment of very different cultures of the time.
For example, the Labour Party in the UK, in postwar Europe cut working hours from 64 hours per week in the 1940s to an average of around 43 hours in the 1970s. Two reasons were provided. Firstly, computers were reducing the requirement for typewriters and handwritten data, therefore, leading to an increase in unemployment. Secondly, with a reduction in work hours people would gravitate towards more leisure time which could result in a more productive economic environment.
In Japan, however, the postwar economic boom was caused jointly by US occupation and influences and an increase in working hours, to increase industrial productivity. The Japanese would put in 12-15 hours per day for work despite probably treading on one of the best trends in technological advances at the time. In fact, it even brings usages of terms like ‘karoshi’, a term that translates to death by overwork, into the daily communication which disturbingly signals resignation of these cases of overworking. The reason perhaps lies in the Japanese culture of honor, where the Japanese mentality values self-sacrifice and determination above all. There have been reforms and changes, and there have been arguments for the Four-day work week instead of the Five day work week.
While there could be many reasons, some of the generally regarded ones are technological advances, specifically in the active participation of algorithms and artificial intelligence systems, the increase in women participating in production thus increasing income as well as labour forces significantly, empirical research that is working on how a four day work week leads to rising productivity rates. In fact, in contrast to karoshi there is Fika, which is a mandatory time period in Sweden, where people are supposed to stop whatever work they are doing and engage in interactions over coffee and cake.
The argument has further gained traction through Google’s Larry Page and the former head honcho at Alibaba, Jack Ma having actively said that there is an increasing redundancy in work hours. In many ways, the reason why work hour discussions are in vogue can be best described in Tim Ferris’s hit book The Four Hour Week.
1. Be productive, not efficient.
2. Validate all of your business ideas.
3. Charge a premium to make your life easier.
There might be something that you have noticed, it is the fact that all of these models of work hours are based out of capital intensive companies. A reduction of working hours is dependent on the consideration of various other factors, not least of all minimum wages. Manual labor for example in countries like India or even the United States generally pays you by the hour. Now with the cost of living being extremely high in some cities and countries, people tend to work longer hours, out of necessity to provide for families. As I conclude this article, another set of questions arise, which probably everyone from a college student who works part-time to the office worker who works overtime can ponder on. If you were to reduce working hours will it be a universal decision? Does it depend on the industry? Or does it depend on the country and its culture? However, it does seem to be the case that we cannot say that reducing work hours does not have a trade-off or negative impacts but if done prudently and with careful considerations, it is evident that this would result in an extremely productive work environment.