When Lasse Rheingans acquired a small tech consulting firm in Bielefeld, Germany in late 2017, he introduced a radical idea: Reduce the workday to five hours, from the standard eight, while leaving worker salaries and vacation time at the same levels.
Rheingans, the firm’s managing director, says employees can deliver the same output during a focused 25-hour week as in 40 hours interrupted with distractions.
To accomplish that, small talk during work hours is discouraged. Social media is banned. Phones are kept in backpacks. Company email accounts are checked just twice a day. Most meetings are scheduled to last no more than 15 minutes.
As a result, the company produces the same level of output for clients despite shorter days. Rheingans says happier employees deliver better work for clients, and the shorter workday is a draw, boosting recruitment in Germany’s tight labor market.
Employees say that there are challenges with the five-hour day, such as the pressure to produce the same work in less time. They also had to adjust to not texting or talking with family during the workday.
Rheingans looked to San Diego’s Tower Paddle Boards as an example of a company with a five-hour workday. Chief Executive Stephan Aarstol says that as an entrepreneur, he typically worked irregular hours but felt guilty leaving the office for the beach when others were still at their desks.
Aarstol began the five-hour experiment in 2015 and noted that it was an initial success, allowing him to reward productive employees and weed out those marking time. Two years later, he limited five-hour days to the summer months because it sapped some employees’ enthusiasm. “We lost the startup culture,” he says. “Everyone’s outside life got so much better, at the expense of their passion for the work.” Aarstol has even written a book titled, “The Five Hour Workday“.
Australian financial services company Collins SBA has been offering its 35 employees the opportunity to quit work between 1 and 2 p.m. for two years now, and it’s been a resounding success, according to managing director Jonathan Elliot.
There are some rules associated with the five hour workday at Collins SBA, First, employees must arrive between 8 and 9 a.m. if they want to leave between 1 and 2. Second, their work responsibilities remain the same, and they must get their work done, even if it takes more than five hours. Third, unless specifically approved, they can’t have any personal appointments during their workday. And finally, they shouldn’t go out for coffee or lunch. Instead, Collins SBA provides coffee and healthy snacks in the office. The company also now holds no one-hour meetings unless there’s absolutely no choice. And all employees have gotten training to help them manage their email more efficiently.
Research shows most people are only productive for four or five hours of the workday, so reducing work time doesn’t necessarily cost companies output, says Brian Kropp, chief of research at Gartner Inc.’s human-resource practice.
But there are some potential issues with a five hour workday. As noted earlier, employees may feel more pressure at work to complete in five hours what used to take eight. Also, it may be hard to remain focused for an entire five hour stretch; people may be more productive taking periodic breaks. There could also be concern with client satisfaction. Clients are likely used to the ability to reach out during “normal” 9-5 working hours, but if most employees are not available after 1:00, it could cause problems.
I’m a big fan of flexible work arrangements, maybe because that’s what I’ve had for the past 30 years. While my teaching schedule is fixed, that only accounts for 9-12 hours of my week. How I schedule the rest of my week is completely up to me. Sure, there are meetings to go to on occasion, but such a schedule leaves me with a lot of flexibility in how, when, and where I get my work done. It would likely take me a while to adapt to a 9-5 work environment if I had to.
Dan Pink talks about the ROWE in his great TED talk on intrinsic motivation. RWE stands for Results-Only Work Environment, and in companies that have adopted such an approach, it doesn’t matter when or where you get your work done, as long as it gets done. In such environments, the results show that worker productivity and satisfaction go up while turnover goes down.
And my guess is that once people are given a flexible work schedule, they may realize that they can get their work done in 25 hours instead of the normal 40.
Who knows, maybe someday we will even get to Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour workweek.
*image from Alltop Viral