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Ditching 9-to-5 — could it really work?

By Jason Dooris
13 March 2017 | 1 minute read

While there are advantages to maintaining the standard 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday workweek, we are moving beyond this punch-in, punch-out model.

Australia’s freelance workforce is growing – Upwork released a study which found around 4.1 million people, approximately 32 per cent of Australia’s workforce, had worked in a freelance capacity during the year, an increase of 370,000 on the year prior.

That means more companies, such as marketing agencies like my own, are dealing with people who march to the beat of their own drum when it comes to work hours, and likely on a daily basis.


Then there are various studies that have shown millennials, who are set to be the dominant demographic in the workforce, are big believers in the work/life balance.

It all points to a looming shake-up in the way we structure our working week.

But while it’s easy to poke holes in the established method, finding a better replacement is far more difficult, and has thus far proven elusive.

Four-day workweek

One model that’s often put forward is the ‘compressed’ week of working four 10-hour days.

It’s got obvious advantages for both employers, such as lowering overheads by shutting shop for an extra day a week, and employees cutting a day of commuting.

However, it’s far from perfect.

In a recent piece written for The Conversation, Allard Dembe, Professor of Public Health at Ohio State University, wrote about the potential hazards of squeezing a 40-hour workweek into four 10-hour days, noting in particular “the health effects that can occur as a result of fatigue and stress that accumulate over a longer-than-normal working day”.

While there’s less concern about workplace injuries in a boardroom or open-plan office than, say, a building site, accidents happen in every workplace, and the odds of one happening shorten as hours increase.

The professor also notes that the 10-hour day would see parents unable to spend as much time with their kids “at the ‘prime time’ of about 5pm to 7pm” on a day-to-day basis.

Playtime in the Treehouse is over

Online education company Treehouse made waves around the world with their four-day, 32-hour workweek.

Simply put, they just didn’t work on Fridays.

“This schedule has been absolutely life-changing for me,” Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson told the Washington Post in February last year, “I can’t imagine anything more valuable.”

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it was.

After laying off 22 employees, Treehouse’s 32-hour workweek was scrapped in September last year.

"The employees understood that we couldn't lay off people and then turn around and say we weren't going to work on Fridays," Carson wrote in an email to The Oregonian.

"I'm sad we had to end the 32-hour work week, but our (m)ission is much more important."

The Swedish way

The Swedish have adopted a similar method to Treehouse, with many companies creating 30-hour weeks based on a six-hour day.

It’s actually been in place in some Swedish workplaces for a number of years, with Toyota’s service centre in Gothenburg first implementing the 30-hour week at the turn of the millennium.

“What we can see today is that employees are at the very least doing the same amount in the six-hour workday, often more than they did in the eight-hour day,” Martin Banck, the service centre’s director, told the New York Times.

“It’s heavy work — drilling, building engine blocks — but they have stamina, and we have more profit and customers because cars get fixed faster.”

Rather than merely relying on word-of-mouth, a nursing home in Gothenburg is aiming to prove once and for all whether the 30-hour workweek is more effective.

The Svartedalens aged care facility has moved its nurses to a 30-hour week while maintaining the salary they have been paid for 40 hours. Meanwhile, a group of nurses at a similar facility have acted as the ‘control’ for the experiment, continuing to work the standard 40.

A little over a year into the experiment, results were that the nurses were much happier in work, providing better care to patients, and were far less likely to call in sick or take time off.

You won’t change the world in 30 hours

The joker in the pack here is that you don’t often hear of self-made millionaires who got there by working 30 hours a week.

Elon Musk copped flack last year when a book claimed the SpaceX and Tesla founder got stuck into one of his employees for missing a work meeting to be at the birth of his child.

According to Ashlee Vance’s book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, the South African entrepreneur sent the following email to an unnamed employee:

"That is no excuse. I am extremely disappointed. You need to figure out where your priorities are. We're changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don't."

It’s a crappy thing to write, and Musk has denied he ever wrote it – but with the book also claiming Musk works up to 23 hours a day, you get the feeling he wouldn’t spend any of his waking hours pondering the 30-hour workweek.

Of course, with three divorces to his name (two to Talulah Riley), Musk appears to struggle striking the right work/life balance – his first wife, Justine Musk, described herself as “A sideline player in the multimillion-dollar spectacle of my husband's life.”

However, in that same piece, Justine wrote of her respect for the brilliant and visionary person that he is.

Musk has revolutionised payment systems and the automotive industry, is at the forefront of colonising Mars, and if Hyperloop lives up to the hype, he’ll have helped create an entirely new mode of transportation.

How much of that would he have achieved if he had been content working seriously reduced hours?

The Goldilocks approach

Jason Dooris, Atomic 212°, in the conclusion for his piece in The Conversation, Professor Dembe makes an argument for the “Goldilocks” workweek: “One that is not too long, not too short, and that satisfies the employer’s interest in productivity and the employee’s interest in attaining good health and wellbeing.”

While that’s hardly the outline of a model, it’s an overview worth keeping in mind when you contemplate the future of the working week – you may have to try a few different ‘bowls of porridge’ before you find the one that’s just right for you and your team.

Ditching 9-to-5 — could it really work?
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