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Four-day workweeks are all the rage, but instead of a compressed workweek, what about a compressed workday? At a time when we are examining what we want work to look like, the idea of a shortened workday is one option worth examining, particularly by those organizations who want to attract workers.

The current norm of five days a week, seven or eight hours a day is something that has evolved over time with productivity gains. In the 1880s, the typical workweek in Canada and in many other industrialized countries was six days a week and ten hours a day. Over the next 50 years that declined so by the 1950s 40 hours spread out over five days was standard. Many workers did and do put in more hours than that of course, but unlike hours spent on a production line, it is not clear that hours in office and productivity necessarily increase in lock-step.

Whether you look for evidence from academic studies or take an informal poll among your office mates, every indicator suggests that much time is wasted during every workday. Virtually everyone will tell you they routinely attend meetings that are too long at best or completely unnecessary at worst. Then there is the time spent chatting with colleagues about their weekends or buying the chocolate bars for their kids’ schools, not to mention the hours spent on social media or random websites as a mental break because it is hard to concentrate for that many hours a day.

A 2023 survey on workplace community Blind found that 45 per cent of tech workers admit to working four hours or less a day. Although the workers were (necessarily) anonymous, they did reference their companies with 40 per cent of workers at each of Amazon and Google saying that they work four hours or less a day.

A separate study by the career website Zippia showed similar results, finding that during an eight-hour workday the typical worker spent four hours and 12 minutes working, with 47 per cent of workers saying they spent part of their days surfing the internet.

Moving to a five-hour workday where workers spent a chunk of a shorter workday checking websites would not be a good idea, which is why any company that chooses to go this route would need to have a laser focus on making sure that work time was actually spent working.

Examples of a organizations with a shorter work day do exist, although they are few and far between. In 2019 The Wall Street Journal profiled a small German company called Digital Enabler whose CEO had decided to implement a five-hour workday where employees were to concentrate fully on work, with no distractions. The company was serious enough about the ‘no distractions’ part of it that they took away workers’ phones and discouraged workers from socializing while at work. Four years later, chief executive Lasse Rheingans continues to advocate for the model. His point, similar to others who advocate for a shortened workday, is that in a service economy what matters is productivity, not hours spent.

There are other, more offbeat examples of a shorter workday. In the 1970s, the top TV comedy series was fronted by comedienne Carol Burnett, who at the time was the mother of three young children. As a result, she ran the show on a ‘school day’ schedule, wrapping up at 4 p.m. every day and running tapings like a two-hour Broadway play rather than doing endless hours of taping. In interviews since, she has talked about the need to be organized and disciplined to make that work, but work it did at least judging by the success and profitability of the show.

There is no doubt however, that hearing about a long-ago television show or a small company in Europe will have many rolling their eyes and muttering about the way that anyone advocating for a shorter workday has zero understanding of how the business works in 2023, which is fair. But what can also be argued is that many workers would be thrilled to have the option of a shorter workday and would be devoted to the companies that offered it to them. After all, the 1970s may be long gone, but the mismatch between school hours and working hours is the same. Offering workers a schedule where the two are matched would have organizations able to pick and choose workers, which is something to think about at a time when many continue to decry the difficulty of finding talent.

Shortening the work day, however, is likely a bigger taboo than moving to a four-day workweek. However much anyone wants to argue that it is not the case, the reality is that in many offices ‘presenteeism’ – being physically present so that your boss knows you are available to work is alive and well. Before the pandemic that might have meant being in the office long hours, while during the most intensive work-at-home phase it meant being digitally present, available to answer emails or calls anytime of the day. Now, it is a mix of those things with bonus points awarded in some cases for the workers who show up at the office. A shorter workday does not seem like a fit under these circumstances, but with so many advantages it could go a long way to attracting and retaining employees and improving morale without affecting productivity.

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