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Could Working Fewer Hours Improve Productivity?

It’s a concept that may seem ridiculous on its face: several employers are reducing the number of hours their employees work under the belief that doing so will encourage these employees to get more work done. Modern employees, particularly those who do “knowledge work,” often work inside of the office as well as outside the office, as they are constantly connected with their coworkers thanks to modern communication technology. Though the hyperconnectivity afforded by smartphones and social media would seem to benefit collaboration and productivity, it also leads to increased stress and more distractions, both of which negatively impact worker effectiveness. In light of this realization, some employers, including German entrepreneur Lasse Rheingans, are actively limiting the number of hours their employees work, believing that a five-hour workday is sufficient to accomplish the tasks necessary for an organization to function.

The workplace Lasse Rheingans runs may seem radical to somebody unfamiliar with the concept of deliberately limiting hours for knowledge workers. Employees arrive at 8 AM and leave at 1 PM, and are not expected to do any more work until the next day. In fact, Rheingans’ office imposes strict restrictions on work; employees are not allowed to access their phones or social media during the workday, and only check their work email twice per day, doing so only during business hours. Employees are instructed not to make small talk with one another during work hours. Furthermore, Rheingan imposes strict limits on the duration of meetings, most of which last just fifteen minutes.

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Originally, Rheingans, who is the head of a digital consulting agency, intended to run the experiment of the five-hour workday for just a week. But he found that the reduced hours was not only popular with employees, but boosted their focus, productivity, and drive. As such, he made the change permanent. Despite the shortened workday, employees are still expected to complete eight hours’ worth of work per day, and are paid the same but do not earn overtime pay for additional hours worked beyond the mandated 25 per week. Rheingans’ employees work more quickly than they used to, choosing to fully focus their attention on their tasks during the day in order to get everything done on time. 

Although Rheingans’ employees initially had difficulty transitioning to this shorter, more focused style of work, once they adapted they found they could maintain their productivity while freeing up a substantial amount of time for their personal lives. Employees also found themselves spending more time socially with one another after the end of the workday, sometimes spending several additional hours at the office having non-work-related conversations with co-workers. 

The benefits of a five-hour workday are supported by scientific evidence.

Rheingans based his approach not just on his personal desire to spend more time with his family and engage in hobbies, but from examples of successful implementations of a shorter workweek. Most notably, Rheingans was inspired by a book entitled “The Five-Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness” by Stephan Aarstol which argues that working fewer hours while getting more things done is not only possible, but can improve your life. Aarstol, a fellow entrepreneur, implemented a five-hour work week at his company, Tower Paddle Boards, in addition to a profit-sharing program for his employees. Though Aarstol paid his employees more per hour as a result of the shortened workweek, he nonetheless saw increased revenue, and found that he attracted more talented employees. Additionally, Aarstol found that the five-hour work day strongly incentivized increasing worker efficiency, as time management became a crucial element of ensuring all work was done on time.

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The benefits of a five-hour workday are also supported by scientific evidence. As an example, research has shown that happy employees are 12% more productive, and employees with more free time to pursue their relationships and interests are more likely to be happy. Rheingans’ smartphone ban during working hours is supported by evidence that shows the presence of a smartphone in the workplace actually reduces one’s brain power, as we generally have a very strong emotional connection to our phones which can prove to be distracting. And having more time to rest in between shifts also boots productivity; studies show that sleep deprivation has a substantial negative impact on brain power as well.

For most people, Rheingans’ and Aarstols’ vision of a five-hour workday can seem radical and off-putting, particularly in the context of a culture that celebrates one’s commitment to their job. But given the positive impact on productivity and efficiency the practice has shown to enable, not to mention the boost to mental health and overall well-being it provides workers, employers may want to give the idea serious consideration.