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Work Time & Leisure Time: a Labor Day Reflection

How can Organizational Leaders Reimagine the 40-hour Work Week?

As we all celebrate a long weekend marked by Labor Day, many of us look forward to hosting a BBQ, going to a beach, playing touch football in the park, and just spending the last days of summer with family and friends. In fact, retailers love Labor Day – from promoting the key ingredients to the best potato salad to the Back to School sales that our kids don’t want to hear about.  

However, Labor Day also allows us to reflect on the history of the labor movement in the United States. The labor movement fought for the protections many salaried workers enjoy today, including the 8-hour day and the 40 hour work week, building around a vision for the importance of leisure time that became enshrined into law in 1938. Before that many workers were working 10-hour days, six days a week. So this reduced work week model was initially well received but it did beg the question – “Why 40 hours?” 

Scholars and activists predicted and expected that work time would continue to shrink and that leisure time would grow. In economist John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren,”  he predicted that in the future people might be working just 15 hours a week. During the Great Depression legislation for a 30-hour workweek passed the Senate but not the House. While Keynes’ vision is far from realized, there have been attempts to reimagine the five 8-hour days – notably a “4-day workweek” model where teams work four 10-hour days, maintaining 40 hours but doing so in a more compressed fashion. 

However, increasingly, organizational leaders are wondering whether 40-hours is the right amount of time to work at all. In a recent pilot program in the UK, 56 companies tried reducing time at work without reducing pay with very successful results: only 3 of those companies are not continuing with the pilot in some way. 

Prompted by the pandemic, many organizations today are questioning what were previously unspoken assumptions undergirding the way we work – how much in person is needed, how do we structure a productive remote model, and how many hours should we expect our colleagues to work in a given week?  And can we maintain profitability and/or sustainability if we reduce the hours worked?  

These are the questions we are discussing at Trepwise, as we explore the future of work, internally and with our clients. In this vein, we have experimented with a new idea of “Stretch Fridays” where every other week, we honor a 4-day work schedule and encourage our colleagues to take Friday off in order to address their life needs and to rejuvenate. This model also allows them to have a long weekend where they can rest and have meaningful leisure time. This experiment worked well – enhanced productivity, growing revenue, better profitability, and happier colleagues. And now “Stretch Days” are part of our sustained model.

We’re still experimenting with these questions, learning with our clients and ourselves. We know that the future of work is forever changed. And while the pandemic forced us to react to the environment around us and, in turn, adjust our working model accordingly, we now have the ability to be intentional with how we work with each other in this new world.

So as you come back to work after a long weekend earned by labor leaders that have come before us, I hope you can reflect on the ideal work structure for yourself, and for the organization you work for. How can you build a model that puts people first? What experiment do you want to run?