Day 6

The 6-hour workday: Too good to be true?

What if work could take up just six hours of your day? And you'd still make the same salary? We speak to two CEOs with two opposing perspectives on shorter workdays.
Watching the clocks. (Reuters)

Long work hours are something of an epidemic in the modern world. And not everyone sees working all the time as a badge of honour. What if work could take up just six hours of your day? And you'd still make the same salary? For two opposing perspectives on shorter workdays, Brent speaks to two CEOs. 

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

First we head to Sweden, where six-hour workdays are being tested out in government-run retirement homes, and where many private companies have already implemented the change — including the tech startup Brath. CEO Maria Brath has 22 employees and they've been putting in six-hour days for the past three years. We reached her in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.

Brent Bambury: You left work at 4 p.m. today after a six-hour workday. What did you do with those extra two hours?

Maria Brath: Well, I started to exercise when I got home. And then I made dinner and ate. And at six o'clock I was done with all that so I've just just been relaxing.

BB: Is it easier for you to relax when you're at home after six hours of work?

MB: I think so. I have a little more extra time, so I don't have to stress when I'm home. I do my things and then I have one or two hours just to relax. 

BB: See, I'm imagining those one or two hours that there will be lots of incursions, people sending you e-mails and texts, people talking about work that didn't get done at the office.

MB: I do check my emails every now and then during the evening, but they're not emails from my employees.

BB: So how do people work differently during the workday, within those six hours? How is their day different?

MB: The difference is that we work really efficiently. Our work is very creative. After a while the brain starts getting tired. So I think if we would work eight hours, the way we work would be a bit slower than what we do today. So we work creatively and we solve a lot of problems.

BB: But can your workforce possibly be as productive in 30 hours as people who work 25 per cent more?

MB: We have actually checked with our competitors. And in our line of business, yes, it's working. When we checked, we actually do a little bit more. 

BB: So people who are working a 40-hour week, those people are wasting two hours a day? Is that what you're saying?

MB: Yes. It depends on what kind of work you do, of course. And if you can do it more efficiently. And I think in a lot of places you can.

BB: And this has been measured. You're sure that your productivity numbers are correct.

MB: Yes, we have checked. We're good friends with some of our competitors. So we have checked and discussed to see how much they do in a day normally. And we do more.

BB: OK, so you have statistics to back it up, but it still seems like it's a risky proposition. What's in it for the employer to reduce hours?

MB: That's the thing. I take a lot of credit for this, but it's my brother and my mother who actually started the company and started with six-hour workdays. But they worried that for the company, that you wouldn't get as much done. But we do. And the benefits are that we have happy staff. And we can hire the best staff. People come to us looking for jobs every week. And when we find good staff, we want to keep them because the staff is the most important thing we have. Some of our employees have been offered other jobs with more salary, and they didn't take the job.

BB: So you have an advantage over your competitors then. But wouldn't that advantage disappear if all of your competitors adopted a 30-hour work week as well?

MB: Of course. So let's not do that [laughs].

BB: I'm trying to imagine a 30-hour work week in North America and it's difficult for me. How has it been viewed in Sweden?

MB: Well, it's kind of divided the country. Most people love the idea, but some don't think it's a good idea. And I can understand it from the company point of view, that you think that it's going to cost more money. And that you're going to have to employ more staff. But from the employee's point of view, I can't see how you would see it as being bad. I had someone saying that "I love my job and I want to be there eight hours." And if you do, then fine, but I'm sure there's other things in life that you could also love to do.

BB: But looking at the advantages that you described: the productive, the satisfied and loyal workforce. How do you think, if that could be applied right across the board, how do you think society would change if we all worked less?

MB: People are too stressed now. We don't have time to look after ourselves. To cook good food, to exercise, to do things we like. There's a lot of people that are home because they've been overstressed. Kids are not looked after proper and taught proper, so they misbehave and I think there's a lot of issues that will be solved if people have more time to do what they have to do outside of work. 

BB: You're describing kind of a panacea of workforces. But do you think that this model is applicable when we're looking at global competitiveness in a global marketplace?

MB: For us, yes, it works. But I think in different kinds of businesses it's going to be more difficult. If you have to be there 24/7, you're going to need more staff. And then it's going to cost you more. But then maybe the staff will be more happy and maybe healthier and that's also cost. It works for us. So I can't see why it shouldn't work for
other people.

BB: Maria Brath, thank you very much for talking to us. Enjoy the rest of your night.

MB: Thank you. I'm going to go to bed now it's late!

The complete solution is to say 'I hired you, get the work done' - Liz Ryan, CEO of the Human Workplace

So those are some of the compelling reasons in favour of switching to a six-hour workday. But would it fly here in North America? Liz Ryan takes issue with it. She's the CEO and founder of the think-tank and consulting firm Human Workplace. She's also a former Fortune 500 HR executive and a frequent contributor to Forbes. Ryan joined us from Boulder, Colorado.

Brent Bambury: What do you make of Maria's work-life balance?

Liz Ryan: Honestly, Brent, there's some aspects of the six-hour workday that make me a little uneasy to be perfectly honest with you. And I say that as a zealot for healthy workplaces.

BB: How does your workday compare to Maria's? Could you imagine having those extra two hours every day that she
just told us about?

LR:  I can't imagine it. Only because I don't divide my day into when I'm at work and when I'm not.

BB: So you have a philosophical difference in the way you approach the time that you put into the office. But what are your concerns about the six-hour workday here in North America?

LR: Certainly there's a concern about staying in the office too many hours. There's no question about that. People are stressed, as Maria said. They're not healthy. They don't have enough time for exercise, sleep, nutrition... But I'm not sure that by reducing the work hours, the designated work hours, to six, that we're actually solving the right problem. 

BB: But what about the problems you just talked about. I mean, how do you address those problems then?

LR: Because, Brent, what happens is, here in North America, the wall between work and home was demolished a long time ago. You asked Maria in your interview with her about texts and calls from people and she said "not from my employees" but unless there would be a cultural change that would back off on this idea of we're always working, I don't know how leaving the office earlier would help. 

BB: But if that wall has been demolished, I mean we could certainly put it back, couldn't we? I mean we should be talking about whether or not it's been a healthy thing that the wall has been taken down, not that this is a reality that we have to live with. 

LR: Absolutely, and I think that wall needs to go up in certain ways, but not by an employer saying now you can go home now. If we value people then we let them decide on their working hours. Isn't that the basic concept behind salaried employment?

BB: Well it might be, but according to Maria, in a compressed workday they work more efficiently, there's more focus. In creative work you're much more likely to work productively when you have that kind of deadline. Doesn't that make sense to you?

LR: No! If you hire people who are creators, why would you tell them when to work? In other words, I think that's a halfway solution. Because the complete solution is to say "I hired you, get the work done," whether you work physically in Sweden or whether you work remotely from Hong Kong. Who cares when you're at work?

BB: If there is an open-ended workday though, and employers are leaving it up to workers to decide what constitutes the amount of time they need to to get the work done, are we in danger of turning the workforce into workaholics?

LR: We've already turned the workforce into children, into worker bees. The definition of adulthood is that you decide how to do the work. You call the plumber, right? And you say "do your thing." You don't tell them how to do it. But somehow in the construct of employment that we created about 200 years ago, we said "we determine how long you get to work here or how long you have to work here." That's the problem. Whether it's eight hours or six hours or anything else.

BB: I want to talk about something else, a specific that Maria said about her workforce, that they're very happy, they're content, it's easy for her to attract and retain high-quality employees. Doesn't that give her company a competitive advantage? Why wouldn't other companies want to follow suit? 

LR: Individually as a manager you can know that in the abstract or somewhere on a spreadsheet, it's more profitable to treat people like adults and give them more latitude. But for you as a fearful individual afraid of your boss who is likewise afraid of his boss and her boss all the way up the line, you bring the hammer down and say "you guys have to stay late." That organizational fear that's baked right into the structure of the way corporations and institutions are run. 

BB: So where are the limits to workplace intrusions into people's lives. Are there any?

LR: Well, in the United States there are there are no limits. In the sense that nobody's going to stop a company from installing keystroke counting software. And I'm like, are you serious? Why don't you count their breaths? 

BB: Well that might come right? They've got the technology.

LR: What is going to change the dynamic is going to be a shift, the shift which has already started 20 years ago toward a knowledge economy where you're not going to be able to get people to, you know, punch a clock and just do a clerical job, a routine job. You need brilliance as Maria has found, and that's something that is not a commodity. 

BB: So for anyone listening who wants to cut back on their work hours — without getting fired — what are their chances of success?

LR: Well, you know, you have the ability to speak up for yourself, to shift your relationship with your employer based on your value to them. And that doesn't mean you got a good performance review, because that's the booby prize, who cares?! You know you got a gold star, but you know, your boss and his boss and the whole division might be cut loose tomorrow, right? So this is the uncertainty that every working person is dealing with right now. There's no job security. But there is your security in yourself and your ability to get new employment if this one should go away. 

BB: You know, Liz, all of that would be so much easier if I just had two more hours a day to think about it.

LR: [laughs] You got me there Brent.
BB: Liz Ryan, thank you very much for talking to us. 

LR: Thank you, Brent.

We want to know what you think. Is the six-hour workday doable in North America, or an impossible dream?
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