Forgetting Ford: The future of the workweek

Nov 27, 2023

5 mins

Forgetting Ford: The future of the workweek

For the past century, the five-day, 40-hour workweek has been a staple of American society. As a standard across nearly every industry, it went largely unquestioned until recently. Over the past three years, there has been a monumental shift in how we see work and our expectations for our professional lives. The pandemic led to a radical increase in remote work, upending the traditional office-based model.

Even after employees could return to the office, remote work had become the new standard for industries that allow it. As millions of workers adjust to hybrid or flexible schedules, the benefits of new ways of working are making professionals question the necessity and validity of the traditional working week. So, where did the five-day week originate, and what could be next?

Where did the five-day week come from?

Before the early 20th century, there was little to no federal organization of workers. Businesses profited from workers who worked long hours under harsh conditions. Wages were low, and using child labor was standard practice. At the end of the 19th century, the first unions began to advocate for workers’ rights and, in the following decades, started a slow march toward fair wages and safe working conditions.

Industrial business magnate Henry Ford was credited with introducing the five-day week after he granted all employees of his automotive empire shorter hours and higher wages in 1926. Ford believed that reducing hours would improve worker satisfaction and boost production. The Ford model became the national standard a few years later when the Great Depression caused unemployment to skyrocket. Roosevelt knew that reducing working hours on a federal level would create new jobs and, in a wave of new legislation, child labor was abolished, a minimum wage was set, and the 40-hour week became the new national standard.

Why has the Ford model lasted so long?

In the wake of the second World War, American society was met with a harsh push to return to a more uniform way of life, focusing on traditional conservative values that had been falling by the wayside during the war as women began joining the workforce. With the increasing promotion of the nuclear family as an ideal, increased consumerism, and an economic boom, professional life in America became increasingly homogenous.

The traditional workweek also conveniently mirrored the school schedule. In the previous century, the American school system was constructed to create a uniform workforce to fuel the growing industrial economy and provide a steady stream of new workers. It also provided free child care, as parents worked while their children were at school. Standardized working hours created stability and reliability for American consumers, who could count on businesses functioning between 9am and 5pm, Monday through Friday. Today, that routine isn’t as necessary. In fact, the school system may make the 4-day workweek a necessity, as 1,600 school districts have shifted to a shorter week, meaning that parents working a traditional week have to find additional childcare.

With exponential advancements in technology, worker productivity and connectivity are at an all-time high and growing even more with remote work. With modern technology, it simply doesn’t take as long to complete tasks, and employees are becoming increasingly aware of the unnecessary amount of time they spend online or in the office. A recent survey found that 45% of employees spend four hours or less on their work each day. So, why do we have to clock on for eight?

What are the benefits of a shorter week?

The benefits of hybrid and remote work have been well-documented in the past few years. While there is limited data on the recent push for a shorter workweek, the results are promising. One pilot study involving more than 60 companies with about 2,900 employees reported positive results from the companies and their staff. After the trial, 92% of participating companies said they would continue with the shortened week, while almost one-third said they would make it a permanent change. During the trial, company revenue rose by 1.4% on average. For staff, overtime fell by 34%, while 39% of employees said they were less stressed, and 71% reported lower levels of burnout.

Aside from the documented benefits, there are other likely improvements to professional life to be gleaned from a 4-day workweek. Increases in employee satisfaction lead to higher retention rates and lower staff turnover – as seen in the pilot study – saving companies money on the recruitment process. Less time at work also means less wasted on maintaining office spaces and utilities.

Is a 4-day workweek the best alternative?

It may seem undeniable that a reduction in working hours has a positive impact on every aspect of working life, but is a 4-day workweek the best alternative to the Ford model? If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that freedom and flexibility are the name of the game when it comes to the future of the workplace. While a shorter week will likely become the new standard, is simply cutting it down from five days to four the only solution?

More research is needed to determine whether trimming the number of hours worked or days worked has more impact. Or perhaps we need to abandon the idea of a new standard. Here are some possible alternatives:

  • Shorter workdays: While a three-day weekend may be desirable, some employees may find working shorter days, five days a week, more impactful. A number of studies have looked at reducing the working day, in some instances to six hours, in others by 25%. In all cases, “a positive relationship between reduced working hours and working life quality, sleep and stress was observed.” So, is shaving off one weekday but keeping the 9-to-5 schedule the most impactful option?

  • No set hours: Another alternative could be to do away with hourly schedules. While this may not be a feasible universal standard, there are many industries where employees could work their own hours, signing off when they have completed their tasks for the day or week. Limiting meetings and practicing asynchronous communication using apps likee Slack is already becoming a trend in American offices in a bid to increase productivity and cut down on time wasted due to performative work. Flexibility is a key recruitment and retention tool, with job hunters listing flexibility as second only to salary when choosing a role. Contrary to what one might expect, allowing employees to work when they like increases engagement, with 41% lower absenteeism and 21% higher profitability.

Do we need a new standard?

There are many options to replace the Ford model of work, and perhaps the US has moved beyond the need for universal work schedules. With all the resources we have to reshape the way we work, is it better to let individual companies collaborate with their employees to decide what’s best for their workplace? Interestingly enough, the auto industry may lead the charge again.

In September, thousands of auto workers in the Midwest went on strike, demanding higher wages and new benefits. One of these requested benefits is, you guessed it, a 4-day workweek. Critics argue that this is too bold of a demand, but those familiar with the history of the auto industry would beg to differ. Ford is back at the forefront of this conversation after unveiling its unique perspective on the future of work at the company. After working with its employees through surveys and internal focus groups to assess the needs of its workers, the company converted 33% of its flagship southeast Michigan workspaces into “collaboration centers” that center around its new vision.

After finding that 95% of its employees preferred hybrid or remote work, Ford abandoned policies around time spent in the office. It converted offices dominated by cubicles into open-concept spaces meant for occasional in-person meetings and socializing. There are dedicated wellness spaces for new parents or staff who need a quiet room to focus. Employees are encouraged to come and go as they please, and to use the space to engage with work when necessary. Instead of a forced return to the office (RTO) or arbitrary policies, Ford took the time to engage with its workforce to create a new vision of what a physical workspace would mean for the company, both in form and function.

While the future of the workweek is a mystery, it’s clear that the five-day, 40-hour structure has served its purpose and is ready to be reimagined. The perfect alternative is an elusive concept, but it’s important that progress is data-driven and based on collaboration between workers and organizations, not on outdated ideas of what it means to be productive.

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