Is the 8 Hour Workday Optimizing Team Productivity? Ryan Ayers

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In a perfect world, every member of your team would arrive on time, and be productive during the full day of work. Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world, and it’s impossible to expect that your team can pay attention to their tasks for a full 8 hours every day. Sure, they’re on site for about 40 hours (or more) per week, but research indicates that the average employee is only productive for about 2 hours and 53 minutes per day. If that’s the case, what are they doing all day, and why is the 8 hour workday the standard anyway?

The History of the 8 Hour Workday

Up until about 100 years ago, there weren’t really any standards for how long the average workday should be. People worked about 100 hours a week in many cases, keeping factories running and people spending practically all their waking hours at work. Slowly, we began to realize that working people this hard wasn’t good for them—or for the economy. Though some companies like Ford adopted the 8 hour workday ahead of their time and experienced increased productivity (since their workers got more rest than those at other companies), it wasn’t until 1940 that the 40 hour week became law. Now, we’re facing the fact that even this might be too much for top productivity.

The Truth About Productivity

The old saying “work smarter, not harder” isn’t about productivity per se, but it does apply to what we are learning about how people work, and how rest affects our efficiency. Fact is, the human brain just doesn’t focus for much more than an hour at a time. When we try to be more productive by adding hours to the workday, we actually end up sabotaging overall productivity.

A Nation Overworked

Americans are famous for working too hard and too long. We boast about being too busy, and we let many of our meager vacation days go unused. The United States ranks very low compared to many European countries when it comes to vacation, parental leave, and other benefits. Some European countries are beginning to reconsider the 8 hour workday altogether—Swedish researchers have been exploring the potential benefits of a six-hour workday. Among nurses in one study, productivity rose by 64%, and the employees were 20% happier when they worked only six hours a day, compared to the group working traditional hours.

Creating a More Productive Environment

So what can you do with this information? If you’re part of a large corporation, you probably don’t wield much power when it comes to company policy and expectations. That doesn’t mean you’re powerless, however.

Flexible Working Hours

More and more companies are seeing the benefit of flexible working hours. If you know your employees have to be “working” 8 hours a day, but are only productive for 3, maximize that productive time. See if you can allow your employees to work during hours that suit them—within reason, of course. If one person reaches peak productivity at 7 AM, while another would prefer to roll out of bed at 10, it could be worth accommodating these different schedules. If they can work from home some of the time, that’s great too—it will help minimize distractions and reduce procrastination.

Encourage Breaks

We’ve all heard about how important breaks are for productivity, but now we have research indicating exactly how long and how often those breaks should be. Working for 1 hour (well, 52 minutes if you want to get precise) and taking a 15-17 minute break will provide the most productivity for your time. Encourage your employees to take these types of breaks—and if possible, get them away from their desks. If you work in designing or innovating skyscraper, your team might benefit from going up and down a few flights of stairs during breaks. Or, they could take a walk around the block. Even just chatting in the kitchen is better than reading news at their desks during breaks!

Be Understanding

You have high expectations for your team, but that doesn’t mean you should micromanage them and tell them exactly how to spend their day. As long as they’re meeting their goals, communicating, and remaining an engaged member of the team, is it really necessary to time their coffee breaks? Be understanding, and realize that science backs it up—we really do work better when we work less.