The 5-hour workday: living the dream?

Feb 03, 2021

6 mins

The 5-hour workday: living the dream?
Coline de Silans

Journaliste indépendante

While the idea of a short working day is nothing new, it’s not the norm in the US. According to studies on productivity and the brain, however, the length of time we can maintain concentration is far less than eight hours, even when split up by a lunch break. That’s why some bosses have taken the gamble of introducing a five-hour workday. But how does a day that ends at 1 PM actually work? Does it make you more productive? And how about being able to complete work that used to take a whole day in just a few hours? We talked to some people who have experience with the five-hour day to get some answers.

Increased productivity

At the German consultancy firm Rheingans Digital Enabler, as with most offices, the buildings empty at 1 PM. The difference is that staff don’t return after lunch because they’ve finished work for the day. Lasse Rheingans, the firm’s chief executive and a former consultant himself, first experienced the five-hour day as an employee. Now, he’s a strong advocate for it. This started when, as a consultant, he requested two afternoons a week off to take care of his children and found he was actually getting as much done as he had been when he was full-time. Once he had his own business, he decided to extend the concept to his whole company and across the full week. “I realized that we don’t need an eight-hour day where people sit in their chairs and waste time on social networks or their phones. I figured we could compress it all into five hours, then take a big break in the afternoon to kick back and relax.”

Behind Rheingans’s philosophy is the idea that we are really only productive for a few hours a day. As far back as the 19th century, the economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the results at work, both positive and negative, came from 20% of the work done. More recent studies have backed up Pareto’s theory: In the US, the average employee is productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes a day. Shockingly, this is only 31% of the average 8-hour workday.

In the US, the average employee is productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes a day. Shockingly, this is only 31% of the average 8-hour

But compressing the working day so that we work only our most productive hours demands strict discipline.

Stricter rules

While a typical day is peppered with coffee breaks, personal messaging, and meetings, for those doing a five-hour day, distractions must become a thing of the past. So when Stephan Aartsol, the founder of Californian company Tower Paddle Boards, chose to implement the strategy in 2015, he imposed radical conditions to optimize productivity: no lunch breaks, no impromptu checking of Facebook or Instagram, and no personal phone calls. “I told them that I was going to give them back some personal time, but in return, the moment they walked through the office door, they would have to be 100% focused on their work,” he said. The chief executive readily admits to having threatened to fire those who would be unable to at least match their previous levels of productivity. That may sound like extreme management of the sort that would not be acceptable on this side of the Atlantic, but it seems to be bearing fruit: the company recorded a 50% increase in turnover after one year following the strategy.

Things are a little more flexible at Rheingans’s company. Still, the conditions are essentially the same: no social networks, checking email only first thing in the morning and once around midday, no lunch break, a 15-minute limit to meetings, and as few coffee breaks as possible. “We really try to focus on our tasks,” he said. “And by 1 PM, we’ve usually finished everything we have to do.” It’s a shorter day, leaving you more leisure time, but that doesn’t come without a certain amount of pressure.

Time to get organized

For former Tower Paddle Boards manager Allison, any pressure comes from a lack of organization. “When Stephan announced that he wanted to switch to a five-hour day, I quickly set up a work routine. I started by prioritizing what needed to be checked during the day, which could affect the rest of my work, such as paddle deliveries or problems with orders. So I would start each day with those tasks, and then would work on projects that had a weekly or monthly deadline,” she said. To avoid spreading herself too thin, she also made a point of checking her emails only twice a day, even though she had some initial doubts. “I would check my emails only once I arrived and also just before leaving, to make sure there wasn’t some big emergency that had come up in the meantime. To begin with, I felt the need to check more often, but soon realized that you actually lose a lot of time checking every five minutes.” Aartsol has an efficient routine, which he maintains can be implemented by anyone. It just needs some thought. “When I instituted the five-hour day, our logistical employees immediately told me it took them five minutes to pack each paddle, and that it couldn’t be done any faster,” he said. “We thought about it together, prioritized some tasks, and automated others. After a month, they were taking less than three minutes a paddle.”

As for those whose jobs require them to interact with customers, all they needed to do was to tell them about the new schedule. “To make sure no one was put out, we let them know about our new schedule and changed the times that we couldn’t be reached, even with a chatbot,” said Aartsol. “At first, I was worried that by reducing our hours, we would lose customers but, in fact, the opposite happened: we got more calls, just within a tighter time scale.”

According to Allison and a marked improvement in productivity due to the removal of distractions, the strategy also led to significant time savings.

A question of balance

“Initially, I always kept an eye on my emails, even in the afternoon. Eventually, though, our customers got used to our new schedules, and there were fewer and fewer contacts after midday. I was then able to take full advantage of my extra time as I saw fit since most of my friends worked in the afternoons. I loved that I finally had time for undisturbed and relaxed reading,” said Allison. Getting a good work-life balance has become increasingly important for many, especially because teleworking during the pandemic has blurred the lines between the two.

At Collective Campus, an Australian innovation school and consultancy, founder Steve Glaveski is convinced of the benefits of a shorter workday for both employers and staff*: ”By cultivating a flow-friendly workplace and introducing a shorter workday, you’re setting the scene not only for higher productivity and better outcomes, but for more motivated and less-stressed employees, improved rates of employee acquisition and retention, and more time for all that fun stuff that goes on outside of office walls, otherwise known as life,”* he wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review about a six-hour workday.

But what happens if the time devoted to “life,” as Glaveski wrote, takes precedence over professional life to the point where you lose interest in work?

The ties that bind

That’s what happened at Tower Paddle Boards in 2015. When Aartsol told his employees that they would now be working fewer hours but would be paid the same––which is undoubtedly the dream for many––four out of his nine employees decided to leave. Why? Loss of social connection with their colleagues, for one. “We were a start-up, going through ups and downs together, so the employees formed a tight bond with each other and a strong corporate culture,” he said. “So when you start finishing work at 1 PM, your outside world becomes much bigger, and you might begin to see those bonds fading away.” To remedy this, Aartsol set up staff activities in the afternoons, with attendance entirely optional, as well as organizing away days for the team each summer. According to Allison, these social activities are essential to the success of the business. “I have great memories of our times together,” she said, “and I believe that these breaks are essential when you work a five-hour day, as they allow you to recreate those bonds with your colleagues, which you might not necessarily have time to concentrate on when you’re working so hard the rest of the day.”

Another notable change at Tower Paddle Boards since 2015 is that the five-hour day now applies only from May to October. “This is both the high season for our business and the time of year when we most want to enjoy our free time. Working five hours a day during these months boosts our productivity since it has been proven that employees are more efficient within this timeframe, while at the same time giving us the advantage of free time to go surfing, go to the beach, or do whatever else we want,” said Aartsol.

It’s a model that can help to make dreams come true. But it could benefit from greater awareness and acceptance.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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