The workplace has undergone some dramatic changes over the past century, particularly when it comes to how businesses view the relationship between working hours and productivity. 

As it turns out, this change stems from research conducted into the science of working hours in the early twentieth century. As a result of this research, the length of the working day or how long workers spend on any given task now matters less – at least to the most enlightened employers – than the quality of their outputs. 

For business systems professionals, a closer understanding of this area of research can be particularly beneficial when it comes to meeting stakeholder’s productivity goals. More specifically, understanding how time input by workers has been shown to correlate to the quality of business outputs – and the point at which this relationship starts to break down – can help design systems that not only support productivity but worker morale as well as a host of other benefits.

The History of Working Hours

Today’s global workforce is typically held to an 8-hour work day and 48-hour work week, as mandated by a 1919 Convention, regulated by the International Labor Organization, whose role is to ensure workers are treated fairly. 

So how did employers and governments arrive at this work structure? Surprisingly, the Hours of Work Convention stems from government-led research into the science of work hour productivity, conducted during World War I. These studies have been documented in great detail in a 2014 study by Stanford Professor John Pencavel on the “Productivity of Working Hours.” 

Both World War I and II were busy times for productivity scientists due to tremendous upheavals across much of the labor force. In particular, the drafting of women into the workforce disrupted traditional working relationships as a result of the conscription of male soldiers to support the war effort. This social change, along with an overall shortage of workers and disrupted supply chains, challenged employers to rethink their views on maintaining economic output. 

Pressure by business owners and concerned social organizations in the United Kingdom during this period led the government to commission studies into supporting their nation’s economic and manufacturing output. These studies resulted in recommendations to lower people’s working hours in order to support greater productivity. The working hour limit was set at 65-67 per week (13-14 hours daily) for men and boys in 1916 (since children could legally be employed at this time) and a maximum of 60 weekly hours for women

This figure was subsequently revised down by the British government based on further research that showed “…the length of hours of employment provisionally recommended two years ago are now too long and can be reduced without loss of output.” This research set a precedent for other nations, whose labor laws were similarly influenced by the drive for greater wartime productivity over the first half of the twentieth century.  

Since then, working hours have continued to decline and stabilize around the world, from 49 hours averaged over 52 weeks in 1929, to 40 hours in 1957, and 41 to 50 hours per week across 21 different industries (in the United Kingdom) in 1960. 

Global Variations in Working Hours

Today, despite the 1919 Convention, working hours still vary across countries and are typically enforced by individual governments. In the United States, for example, working over 40 hours a week for full-time employees constitutes overtime, as set out in the Fair Labor Standards Act, enacted in 1938. 

However data indicates areas of disparity between many governments’ guidelines on workplace productivity and the actual reality for many workers today. To begin with, 50 percent of full-time workers in the United States reported working over 41 hours a week in a widely publicized 2014 Gallup “Work and Education” survey

Meanwhile, the latest U.S. government data on working hours from 2017 and the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) indicate workers spend, on average, over 8 hours a day at work regardless of educational background or job type other than part-time workers, which is in excess of the national recommendation. At the same time, the World Economic Forum reported American workers (both full- and part-time) were working 1,783 hours annually in 2018, which ranks as one of the highest globally (top 15).

By comparison, workers in countries such as Sweden, France and Spain, for example, typically work between 35 and 40 hours a week. This difference is based on national labor laws, cultural traditions like taking a lunchtime “siesta” and a variety of employer-led experiments to support workforce productivity while alleviating other systemic issues such as worker happiness or long-term unemployment.  

At the other extreme, workers in South Korea can expect to spend an average of 2,024 hours at work each year, though recent laws targeted at large companies in particular have attempted to reduce this figure without impacting productivity. 

Meanwhile, awareness for the physical and mental side-effects of typically working long hours and six-day work weeks is growing in China, where 40 percent of employees in one survey reported working more than 50 hours a week despite a national guideline of 44. 

Clearly much progress still needs to be made in order to better support worker productivity around the world, though there is mounting awareness for the detrimental social and physical impacts of excessive overtime and long working weeks.

The Link Between Work Hours and Economic Output

Despite global variations however, research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicates workers in most countries have experienced a decrease in their average working hours over the past twenty years without negatively impacting Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

Over this timeframe, employees in the United States, for example, experienced an average 3 percent decrease in their annual working hours while average GDP increased 2.08 percent. By comparison Israel, which experienced a 6 percent decrease in average annual working hours over the same time period, saw a mean annual GDP grow by close to 4 percent. 

Similarly the Greek workforce spent 2,034 hours a year at work versus 1,397 in Germany, with the latter country’s productivity being 70% higher. These figures indicate that the relationship between economic output and worker productivity is influenced by more than the total number of hours worked. 

Long Work Hours Shown to Negatively Impact Productivity

Similarly, research shows that when a person’s work hours exceed a certain threshold, this negatively impacts their productivity and quality of output, not to mention health and wellbeing. 

For example, the same studies in wartime Britain used to establish the now global recommendation for working hours found that, above 49 hours or more, worker output starts to decrease. At 63 hours and beyond, worker productivity ceased to increase altogether. By comparison, output for those who worked 49 hours and under steadily increased up to that threshold. 

Meanwhile, though the principles behind the British government’s findings have held true for almost a century, some researchers today argue current guidelines need to undergo further revisions. In particular, they argue typical gender-based divisions of household labor around the world still put undue stress on female workers relative to their male counterparts and working hours.   

In addition, studies have shown long work hours can also lead to more accidents and health issues for workers, especially in high-risk, service based industries like healthcare. The physical repercussions of overwork have also been shown to contribute towards attrition, healthcare costs and absenteeism for employers. 

For instance, a United States analysis of over ten thousand workers between 1987 and 2000 as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found those who worked at least twelve hours each day or at least sixty hours per week had considerably higher (37 percent and 23 percent, respectively) injury hazard rates than other workers. 

In fact, high numbers of workers report feeling like their productivity is regularly compromised as a result of long work hours, with negative consequences for employers. In one study, 46 percent of HR leaders cited employee burnout as responsible for up to 50 percent of their firm’s attrition, for example. Furthermore, the same study found unfair compensation, unreasonable workload, and too much overtime were the top three contributors to burnout. 

Another United States study from 2004 indicated 38 percent of workers (out of a sample of 30,000) acknowledged experiencing “low levels of energy, poor sleep, or a feeling of fatigue” on a regular basis over the measured time period. 

Despite this wealth of findings into the negative repercussions of overwork, few workers, especially in the United States, can rely on the law to regulate extremes in their working hours. The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), for example, states that any work over 40 hours in a 168 hour period is counted as overtime, however there are almost no national legal protections for them in this scenario. The responsibility for ensuring workers are treated fairly and can be at their most productive therefore falls to the employer. 

Tools for Supporting Worker Productivity 

Thankfully, business systems professionals are well placed to support or encourage more productive working practices within a business thanks to the nature of their work and relationship to key stakeholders. 

Ensuring business systems’ goals are aligned with those of the business, particularly when it comes to the quality of outputs or driving worker productivity, can therefore increase the opportunity to focus on this area and make a positive impact on an organization.

Mental Distraction

So how best to approach worker productivity? For starters, numerous studies have shown how workers in different industries are more productive when they take regular breaks or switch to focus on other tasks every 50 minutes or so, with regular intervals in-between. 

One well-known example of a technique that supports this kind of working is the Pomodoro method, developed in the 1980s, whereby someone allots themselves a given amount of time to focus on a given task followed by a timed interruption of around 25 minutes. A tomato-shaped timer helps set the rhythm for periods of concentration and breaks. 

For business systems, the same method could be applied to a business line or team by building timed break triggers into communal work tools such as Slack using simple notification automation. In this instance, a worker might receive a timed notification every hour reminding them to switch tasks or take a break at regular intervals. This time trigger could be set by the worker or business lead to support optimum productivity depending on the tasks in hand and tailored to cultural variations in work times and preferred working styles, even within the same organization. 

Alternatively, using a bot to generate notifications in other tools based on the tasks in a worker’s calendar would produce a very personalized approach to time management each day. Outside of automation, there are also a number of apps that can help with taking regular breaks

This philosophy has been shown to work well when applied across a company too, like at United States food retailer Trader Joe’s. Here, workers rotate around a series of different tasks every one to two hours to maintain productivity as much as preventing the boredom of repetitive tasks. As a result, workers’ calendars change every day, which requires them to frequently check a central calendar and part of the store. This requires in-person communal check-ins every hour to consult the store calendar, which also leads to a stronger team culture regardless of where individual workers find themselves for the rest of the shift. 

Trader Joe’s employees often cite these factors as one of their favorite aspects of working for the company. In fact, practices like this have helped the business earn repeated top billing as one of America’s best employers despite being in an industry known for high employee turnover.   

While business systems may not be able to effect change across every part of an organization, it is useful to understand that the positive effects of interruption can work at scale and for different kinds of tasks if teams are looking to implement similar systems.

Physical Diversion

In addition to taking regular breaks at work, the psychosocial benefits of regular exercise in the workplace, much like the benefits of improving trust, have been shown to improve worker productivity versus sitting for extended periods. 

For employers, this means encouraging workers to embrace a range of work environments, which is why some employers provide designated quiet rooms, like Unilever, “recharge rooms,” like Nike, or even “sleep pods,” like Google. The upshot? Focus rooms and even well-stocked canteens have also been shown to improve social connectedness and employee motivation across an organization, another pillar of great workplace productivity. 

Thankfully for business systems leaders, effecting changes in productivity can be more straightforward than refurbishing the office! For example, this could translate into using automation to share fun or inspirational notifications about places or ways to work across an office if business leaders are looking to make these kinds of changes. In addition, these ideas could be folded into the same timed notifications already described. Even better, this idea would work just as well for remote employees, who will likely appreciate a reminder to step away from their laptops as much as their office-bound colleagues!

If this is an option for the organization, surfacing ideas for holding meetings outside the office, like L.L. Bean’s “Be an Outsider At Work” project in New York or Amazon’s rainforest work spheres in Seattle, and designing booking systems to make that a reality for teams can also introduce positive and productive “disruption” into the office routine. 

In addition, encouraging teams to reduce hours spent in an unproductive fashion, like in long meetings, has also been shown to boost productivity by helping workers focus better, resulting in better business decisions. Google, for example, holds it employees to 45-minute meetings, a principle embedded in its popular Google Calendar product

With this goal in mind, a business systems lead could apply the same principle to their organization by encouraging stakeholders and, by extension their teams, to use this meeting function where it exists. Alternatively, partnering with the relevant internal teams to set meeting time limits in other calendar programs, meeting tools or even room booking systems can influence behavioral changes organization-wide that have been shown to boost worker productivity. 

Shorter Hours (in the Office)

Outside of simply distracting workers from, well, work, studies suggest changing the length of the working day can also positively influence worker wellbeing and productivity. 

Again while this isn’t the immediate purview of business systems leaders, understanding how the shape of the working week can impact the performance of a business may be helpful when reviewing ways to drive performance with internal stakeholders.  

For example, the results of 23-month study at a care home facility in Gothenburg, Sweden, indicated nurses were happier, healthier and more energetic when working six-hour days instead of eight hours. This study followed a similar and widely-publicised 13-year experiment by car manufacturer Toyota in the country. 

The premise of these studies – and others of this nature – was that a 6-hour work day resulted in happier and healthier employees. In turn employees would be more productive through increased attentiveness and lower rates of absenteeism and errors, particularly in industries like healthcare with high employee turnover resulting in high costs for employers. Meanwhile studies into 6-hour work days in other industries and countries have shown these benefits to hold true across all levels of an organization. 

However it is worth noting that neither Swedish trial resulted in overarching policy changes by the nation’s employers or government. Instead many businesses, especially in the services industry, were wary of the increased labor costs associated with a larger workforce in spite of perceived productivity or wellness gains by employees. 

Further afield, the French government also encountered the same opposition back in 2000 when it mandated a shift to a 35-hour work week, partly as a measure to curb systemic unemployment. 

Head Outside

Instead, incentivizing workers to spend less time in the office may provide the same benefits as shorter work days without the associated labor costs, including resource savings tied to potentially closing the office for an extra day each week during peak holiday seasons.

Companies such as Cockroach Labs, for example, have opted for shorter work weeks to support productivity. The tech company operates a “Free Friday” policy where workers can focus on their own projects outside of the office environment. The founders’ clear support for this approach as well as the company’s public updates about Flex Friday projects incentivizes teams to follow suit and be transparent about the results. 

Meanwhile a 2018 survey by Gartner found 46% of companies in the United States were planning to offer their employees paid “Summer Fridays,” where workers can work from home or the beach, as a motivational tool to increase productivity. 

Using Business Tools To Support Productivity

Ultimately however business leaders choose to drive productivity across their organization, business systems have an important role to play in supporting those decisions by equipping teams with the tools, systems or processes to enable efficient working practices. 

For example, 20 percent of HR leaders in a recent Kronos Workplace Burnout survey blamed their business’ problems on insufficient or overly manual and uncoordinated technology. For business systems professionals in this scenario, automating or reducing manual tasks across lines of business, provided this is in their area of responsibility, as well as improving the efficiency of systems infrastructure would clearly have wide-reaching business benefits. 

Meanwhile, using the same principles to facilitate communication across lines of business, particularly when it comes to distributed teams, can also drive step changes in productivity. In this instance, adding apps like Spacetime, for example, to communal tools like Slack can simplify the task of coordinating milestones or meetings across timezones. 

Meanwhile at HipChat, bot-supported automation in messaging tools helps the engineering team collaborate more effectively and stay informed. Here, entering “/standup” in a dedicated HipChat room posts updates from teams in different locations into a global communal pane. 

On the other hand, the accounting team at Fintelligent drove greater internal productivity by using automation to reduce manual data entry to keep track of their invoicing process. Similarly many marketing teams now use chatbots to import data into communal chat apps and connect the dots between data from across the organization and their business processes.

Ultimately for business systems professionals, deploying technology or processes that support better communications and reduce manual labor for an organization, regardless of the business line, can help employees stay focused and more productive. 

Working Hours Impact Business Productivity

In summary, a century’s worth of research indicates shorter working hours result in better business productivity, as well as perceived physical and psychological benefits for employees. 

However much attention a business pays to this research, understanding how workers approach tasks during working hours – and for how long – can be an indicator into their productivity or lack thereof. As a result, this can be a useful area to focus on for business systems professionals tasked with taking an active role in shaping business performance.

Finally, reviewing the relationship between a business’ working hours and output is particularly significant at a time when, according to a recent Gallup survey, only 34 percent of the United States workforce described itself as “engaged” at work. However long it takes to make improvements in this realm, the time is clearly ripe for change.

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Ruth Temianka
About Ruth Temianka

Ruth has driven innovation in tech, food and design for organizations around the world. Now she writes about it too. Learn more about her work at: ruthtemianka.com