When Liverpool marketing agency Agent was asked by the BBC to test a Nordic-style, six-hour working day for a TV programme it jumped at the chance. Inspired by reports of six-hour days in Swedish care homes in 2016, the hope was reduced working hours would lead to new ways of looking after staff wellbeing. But the results of the month-long trial, which took place during the same year, were mixed.
“Lots of really good things happened,” says Agent CEO Paul Corcoran. “We looked at tasks in terms of time and said ‘we need 15 minutes to do that, half an hour to do that’ and really focused on delivering in that way. People were missing the worst of the traffic because they were coming in at 9am instead of 8.30am and they were finishing early, so they had the flexibility to do things like pick the kids up.”
But the downsides quickly became evident when staff started focusing too much on how they could condense their work into smaller and smaller time slots. “The idea was to give people more freedom, but we were finding we were going ‘oh fuck, we need to get everything done in those hours’ so it became more stressful,” Corcoran says. In the end, the business settled on a model where everyone works two short days and three long ones.
As employers grapple with how to manage the return to the workplace in the wake of Covid-19, the concept of compressed working is making a comeback. As left-of-centre politicians continue to make the case for four-day weeks, they are often forgetting evidence that shows five-hour days may be the better option.
“Research indicates that five hours is about the maximum that most of us can concentrate hard on something,” says Alex Pang, founder of Silicon Valley consultancy Strategy and Rest and author of several books examining the links between shorter working hours and productivity. “There are periods when you can push past that, but the reality is that most of us have about that good work time in us every day.”
The eight-hour working day is a relatively new concept, widely accepted to have been cemented by Ford Motor Company a century ago as a means of keeping production going 24 hours a day without putting undue demands on individual members of staff. Ford’s experiment led to an increase in overall productivity; but proponents of five-hour days, including Californian ecommerce business Tower Paddle Boards and German digital consultancy Rheingans, say they experienced a similar phenomenon when they moved to compressed-hour models.
Like Corcoran, Tower CEO Stephan Aarstol says he was startled by the results when the business adopted a five-hour working day in 2015. Staff worked from 8am to 1pm with no breaks and, because employees became so focused on maximising output in order to have the afternoons to themselves, turnover increased by 50 per cent.
“The warehouse guys were rolling their eyes when we first rolled this out, but the biggest gains were actually there,” he says. “It had taken them five minutes per package to ship before, but within a few weeks they had got that down to less than three minutes. They were doing stuff that real productivity experts would do. I told them they had a constraint and it forced them to creatively think.”
Rheingans CEO Lasse Rheingans says when he first floated the idea of compressed working with staff they came up with the idea of banning distractions like smartphones from their desks and minimising the use of “productivity killers like Slack”. The aim for Rheingans was to keep productivity constant but to give people more time off.
Although more productive and better for work-life balance, Rheingans says that, like Corcoran, he discovered after a year that shorter days are not without their downsides. “We realised that we were losing something on the relationship level,” he says. “It affects loyalty and team culture and the relationships people have in a company, when you don’t have time for chatter and small talk and coffee together.”