Why the 9-to-5 workday no longer corresponds to today’s working world

The old adage “time is money” goes way back. Usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, it describes the long-held belief that more time at work equals more success. And that may have been the case once, for some anyway. In the farming era, more time in the fields meant more crops were planted or harvested (this, of course, only worked for those crop owners or those paid by the hour or bushel for field work, not slave labor or contract servants ). Still, much agricultural work was unlikely to continue after sunset, and it is often seasonal, contrary to what took root during the Industrial Revolution, when a large proportion of the labor force moved from the field to the factory to work on a set basis daily schedule to work.

As a journalist Celeste Headlee, author of Doing Nothing: How to break free from overwork, overdoing it and underliving, put it this way: “Before the industrial age, time was measured in days or seasons. However, as workers began to come and go from work, our understanding of time changed, as did our enjoyment of our free time.” If people have free time at all, that is. Shifts in factories and plants can sometimes last ten, twelve, or even fourteen hours a day, leaving little time to do much other than eat, sleep, and get ready for another day’s work (a term familiar to a maybe not so unusual seems many work today).

Labor movements grew in power in response to the difficult conditions, but it was not just workers who saw the need for change. In the 1920s, automotive titan Henry Ford found business reasons to limit hours. As someone concerned with efficiency, he noticed that employees who worked long hours made mistakes and productivity suffered. He then imposed restrictions: eight-hour days, five days a week. He wasn’t the first to do so, but he deserves credit for drawing attention to the concept. “We know from our experience going from six days to five days and back again that we can produce at least as much in five days as we can in six,” he said. “Just as the eight-hour day paved the way for us to prosper, so the five-day work week will pave the way for even greater prosperity.” However, it was not until the next decade, in 1938, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited the working time for all employees.

During this industrial age, the concept of work became so closely tied to measures of time and effort, to the point where they seemed inseparable. Management practices followed suit, with executives relying on things like punch cards and monitoring practices to ensure employees are investing their time and producing products non-stop.

How the future works: Leading flexible teams to do the best work of their lives by Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian, Helen Kupp

Many of these ideas persisted even as the work changed significantly. In the mid-twentieth century many workers moved again, this time from the factory to the office, but like the field or the factory, there was still a central place where the work had to be done – that was where the files and equipment (typewriters , switchboards, fax machines) that made the work possible, as well as the people you had to work with to get your job done.

Even today, most of us think of the workday as a variation of 9-to-5 and the workweek as Monday through Friday. Bosses often expect to see their employees in the office at a certain hour and make a note of when they leave (at least before the pandemic). This has largely remained the case, although the type of knowledge work that drives much of today’s economy does not have to be done from a specific place or time, thanks to a range of new technological tools. Many of us no longer need to show up in the field where the crops are being grown to do our jobs, or at the factory to assemble equipment, or in an office to connect with colleagues and customers. In fact, the notion that we would wait until we got to the office at 9:00 a.m., or take a hard break if we left at night, is gone for most of us a long time ago (if we ever experienced it at all have ) when our laptops and smartphones allowed us to take work home in our bags or pockets. 9-to-5 is a concept that just doesn’t resonate with most knowledge workers today.

It seems that so much has changed in the way we work in the last few decades and yet so much has not. Concepts like presenteeism, clock tracking, and employee monitoring are still prevalent in organizations across all industries, and seldom have we wondered if these old habits and expectations still make sense. (Spoiler alert: they don’t, as you’ll see in this book.) Then came COVID-19, which shut down offices around the world, and suddenly we couldn’t avoid it: we had to take a closer look at the way we work and ask if it would not be possible to do things differently – and maybe even better.

As anthropologist James Suzman wrote in his review of how the concept of “work” has evolved over the centuries: “In acknowledging that many of the basic assumptions underpinning our economic institutions are an artifact of the agricultural revolution, reinforced through our migration to the cities, frees us to envision a whole range of new, sustainable possible futures for ourselves and to challenge ourselves to use our restless energy, determination and creativity to shape our destiny.”

In other words, if the way we work is rooted in old norms, what is stopping us from changing and doing things in new and better ways?


Excerpts courtesy of the editor, Wiley As that future Functions: Leading flexible teams to do that Best work by Thati live by Helen Kupp, Brian Eliott and Sheela Subramanian. Copyright © 2022 by Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian and Helen Kupp. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.

Helen Kupp, Brian Eliott and Sheela Subramanian are executives at future Forum, a consortium founded by Slack, and that co-authors of As that future Functions: Leading flexible teams to do that Best work by Thati live

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