Imagine for a moment that as an employee, you could design and shape your full-time workweek. You have a number of tasks on your “to do” list, but you are unrestrained by employer and health insurance regulations nor are you restricted by the employer mandates to meet 37.5 to 40 hours or more of clocked time per week. Rather, you are simply trusted to get your work done, in the time that you allot and in a method that is efficient and effective. For example, an organization may allot 40 hours for a job that an employee may be able to complete in 35 hours, with varying hours and flexibility, while another employee decides to take the full 40 hours to achieve the same output requirements.
For organizations who must comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) and compensation, the latter notion may be a recipe for losing organizational control and bordering chaos. Yet, U.S. challenges to reduce the full-time hourly workweek are not only regulatory, but socio-economic and socio-cultural. First, the U.S. workforce constitutes decades of workers who are conditioned to the 40-hour workweek system. Additionally, there are a plethora of industries requiring longer work hours secondary to labor shortages, for example, health care and public safety. Thus, what might be appropriate for one industry may not be feasible for another industry. Moreover, we are in a period of rapid technological advancement, including but not limited to artificial intelligence and robotics. We offer that at the core of the challenges faced within our contemporary period is our basic ability to use time effectively and efficiently within the midst of advancement.
Human Use of Work Time
The concept of utilizing worker time efficiently, yet productively, is not new. In 1950, an expert posited that the U.S. would reach a 30-hour workweek by 1980. This 69 year-old prediction has not been achieved. In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson published Parkinson’s Law, which states that work will be extended to the time allotted for completion. Parkinson’s Law could not have been more accurate regarding time inefficiency and waste. A common, anecdotal complaint of workers and organizations alike in various U.S. organizational sectors is time inefficiency. Armed with knowledge from prior decades of discussion on this subject, the U.S. debate regarding the minimum 40-hour workweek for full-time workers continues.
Data trends on annual hours worked presented by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) allow one to gain perspective relative to the United States. For example, workers in Denmark, Germany, Canada, and Japan, among others, work fewer hours per year versus their U.S. counterparts. Moreover, a higher number of working hours does not necessarily equate to higher productivity. For example, a business in New Zealand has recently challenged this convention by allowing their employees to work 32 hours per week while being paid for 40. This widely publicized case study is one example that a 32-hour workweek can be just as productive as a 40-hour workweek.
As we progress into the 21st century, with changing demographics, technology, and socio-cultural dimensions—adaptation of established norms is paramount for the optimal success of organizations and their human capital. Toward this discussion, we offer perspectives on time for both organizations and employees impacted by a rapidly changing working world.
Workweek Hours: To Count Hours or Not?
Time is a precious commodity, and humankind is particularly aware of its usage in the 21st century. In organizations, the notion of time management and efficiency are often discussed. Time efficiency is a concept that managers and leaders grapple with alike, comparing cost to time in estimation of labor wages to work tasks. From an employee perspective, a large amount of time is spent in human work for monetary gain. However, there is the personal side of time, the time spent on personal development, family, friends, and health-related activities. It is the combination of work and personal time that marks the human lifespan. Waking hours in a day are allocated to work and personal time demands, for example, health and well-being, parenting, caregiving, etc. This is vastly different from the standards enacted in the early 20th century, as the industrial age emerged.
The demands on women and men in society were quite different at the turn of the 20th century compared to the technologically-advanced 21st century. A congressional hearing occurred in 2011 that addressed the FSLA 40-hour workweek requirement. Thus, work flexibility, technology as a driving force for change, and the antiquity of the Act have been discussed by legislators in congressional hearing.
With improved tools and technology, employees are now able to work smarter versus harder. Dependent upon the organizational sector, there are a variety of examples of this notion, including a power tool vs. a handsaw, a computer vs. a typewriter, the Internet vs. the telephone. Employees can meet with customers and conduct business globally with the click of a mouse versus having to travel to face-to-face meetings, which was once a time consuming process. Although the need for face-to-face interaction is not obsolete, there is less of an expenditure of time lost to processes that are automated by technology. For example, the automation of everyday tasks such as business telephone calls or delivery with drones has freed time spent on those tasks. In recent news, delivery with drones will be permitted for the delivery of medical materials per a recent Federal Aviation Administration press release.
According to the American Time Use Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees spend more time in the work environment than they do working from home. Employees who commute to work spend varying amounts of time commuting; however, the average one-way commute in the U.S. is 26.1 minutes according the U.S. Census Bureau. Combined with the required 40-hour workweek, this additional commuting time elongates the workday. Often, employees have the wherewithal to know when they can be efficient with their work time from a remote location or partially remote location, thus reducing downtime related to commuting or travel to offsite locations. Eliminating commute time as well as exposure to office distractions allows an employee to concentrate energy solely on required work tasks. Additionally, organizations spend less time and money providing work space for employees. This is, arguably, an efficient use of resources for both the organization and the employee.
The trends in supporting remote work sites remain optimistic. However, different organizational sectors, ripe for remote work, have additional work to do in this arena. For example, the governmental sector is one area where remote work can be appropriate and expanded. Fostering trust between management, and employees in order to maximize the utilization of human capital may be a variable of concern as remote work gains popularity. For example, will organizations trust their employees with autonomy and important workplace tasks? There are deeper, critical questions important to the conversation that U.S. organizations, legislators, and employees would need to address: Can we do more or the same amount of work in less time? Can we reach efficient standards of quality work without the convention of 40 hours? Who will define how time is spent in our respective workplaces and what changes must be made to realize this potential autonomy? Who will benefit from this change? Who will unite to drive this change in U.S. legislation?
A Reduced Hourly Workweek: A Benefit for Everyone?
Technology is the current driver of our world, and many in the United States believe it has a positive influence on life. Arguably, if used correctly, technology saves time. The 21st century office or knowledge worker can easily connect and work with colleagues using communication-oriented technology, such as video conferencing or cloud-based applications. Thus, it is likely that what might have taken several hours to accomplish in a face-to-face team setting or office, will now take only minutes. Workers may contribute and communicate with flexibility on certain types of projects, in varying time zones, and throughout the day. However, not everyone enjoys the ability to use technology for work time and efficiency. Blue-collar workers responsible for routine tasks or tasks requiring direct person-to-person presence are least likely to draw direct benefits from e-technologies, largely due to the innate lack of flexibility in their work setting and arrangements. Thus, if the 40-hour workweek could be reduced, would certain sectors benefit more than others? Would there be options for blue-collar workers? For example, shift differences such as (3) 10-hour days, (4) 9-hour days, or (5) 6-hour days or shorter shifts with remote paperwork. Some U.S. organizations are already using a (4) 10-hour or (3) 12-13-hourly model.
The Dark Side of Technology and Time Reduction in Work
Technology can be a benefit to reducing inefficiency and the volume of work time, but it also has its disadvantages. The advantages of technological flexibility in potential cost savings (commuting costs and for organizations, building space), and daily schedule (work-life balance), may, initially, appear to reduce the stress of finding time for the commitments of life. However, there is an opposing side to this seemingly ideal work arrangement, when an employee is always “plugged in.” Such outcomes include the additional stress of feeling overwhelmed, burnout, and/or increased job dissatisfaction and turnover considerations.
The ubiquitous presence of technology frequently “forces” employees to rely on accessibility and convenience during “after hours” time.  For example, a quick check for new emails, leaving a voicemail/sending a text in the evening can easily be executed.  Employees may find themselves motivated to utilize technology to engage in work tasks after hours. For example, a personal motivation in the form of ambition to succeed may drive this need to rely on the “after hours” use of technology, and thus, count as working time.
The “after hours” use of technology not only extends one’s working time but also creates a distraction in one’s personal life, for example, when employees respond to work-related matters during children’s events, family outings, and vacations. The permeability of these boundaries in work environments contributes to role confusion (not knowing what role to enact in specific contexts) and deteriorates one’s capacity to become fully engaged in current events. Additionally, after-hours work may contribute to a greater potential for work-life conflict. For example, an employee may be driven by promotion or monetary gain to disregard the importance of personal boundaries separate from work assignments.
To avoid the application of what Edley calls, “…organizational control into the home,” the idea of work flexibility and employee perceptions of work flexibility, becomes meaningful when combined with an opportunity for employees to decide their own hours of work.  This would mean that an employee would choose hours that suit their work and personal life obligations.  These positive perceptions of the utility of flexible schedules are amplified when organizational policies are consistently implemented across traditional and non-traditional worker schedule types. Since building healthy work-life balance is the next phase of the e-technology integration, organizations ought to consider offering work policies which continue to expand work flexibility to a larger degree by incorporating employee-created schedules. Doing so could positively change time efficiency and productivity for employees who may be able to fulfill personal and work obligations as they choose. There is the high potential to do more in less time with both quality and efficacy, yet receive what is currently considered 40-hour work pay.
Paving the Way for Change
In the next three to five years, the U.S. will see changing demographics, shifts in workforce composition, and technological advances across organizational sectors. Although the discussion of the 40-hour workweek is not new, a conversation continues to trend in the popular business press and in professional associations. Since the 40-hour workweek is legally mandated and embedded in U.S. work structure as the standard for full-time work—change will not be easy. Will the predictions for the 30-hour workweek come true in the 21st century? As a new era of work emerges, the human ability to define, set boundaries, and place value on time may be the foundational factor for that answer.