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As offices continue to slowly reopen, scores of business owners find themselves rethinking their companies’ old structures and schedules – in particular, the 40-hour work week. (Credit: Nenad Stojkovic, Wikimedia Commons)

Jane Neo is done with the standard work week.

Instead, the co-founder of California-based baby essentials seller KeaBabies says she’s going to pay her staff based on the work they complete, effective immediately. “Employees who are able to achieve their tasks in 30 hours will work only 30 hours a week,” she explains. “For those employees who prefer to take an extra day off while still achieving their weekly tasks, they can.”

Neo is part of a growing number of people, employers included, who find themselves increasingly at odds with the very concept of a 40-hour work week. Considering the idea first came about well over a century ago — it was conceived during the Industrial Revolution, and implemented broadly in the early 1900s throughout the U.S. — a revisit and reevaluation is long overdue.

But it’s pandemic living that’s forced the conversation to the foreground. Essential workers were strained like never before. But those who are able to work from home have done so for well over a year, and it’s shone a light on the myriad problems with how long and how much we normally work. To be clear, working from home didn’t provide the oasis of flexibility folks might assume. In fact, many reported feeling overworked during extended lockdowns, with the lines between work hours and personal time blurring almost to the point of nonexistence for some. So, shifting locations alone wasn’t the answer.

Now, as offices continue to slowly reopen, scores of business owners find themselves rethinking their companies’ old structures and schedules, usually mandates of being in-office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. And while there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to how to move forward — some are creating hybrid schedules involving some remotely worked hours and days, while others are trying a 4-day work week of 32 hours or offering wiggle room on the total number of hours or days worked per week — the tide is definitely turning away from that 40-hour standard.

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Making Work ‘Work’ for All

This change is part of a decided, societal-level shift that appears to be taking us further away from “workaholism” — the practice of valuing or celebrating work-related burnout, rather than attempting to avoid it. 

Research certainly supports such a shift, with upticks in productivity and overall happiness seen in workers who work less. Even the nebulous nature of proposed solutions is a good thing, studies show, with workers valuing flexibility and autonomy over any particular alternative work-week structure. (Bonus: Such policies are more inclusive of workers of all identities and abilities, too.)

But today, 58 percent of Americans report working at least 50 hours a week, despite earning salaries based on the standard 40 hours (either because they are working overtime, or because they have to take on second jobs to make ends meet). This is all despite studies also showing that overworking negatively impacts employees’ physical and mental health. And as previously noted, the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue.

Professor Diane Burton, chair of human resource studies at Cornell University’s labor-focused IRL School, noted to The Story Exchange that “firms have been experimenting with alternatives to the 40-hour work week for a long time,” with many attempting to implement a ROWE, or “results-only work environment.”

“We have learned from the pandemic that many people are able to manage their own time and productivity,” Burton adds. “But we need managers to catch up and adjust their management styles.”

Some are already there. Lindsey Allard has always run a remote operation, and says that since launching her online user-experience firm, PlaybookUX, in 2018, “work has stretched to be something that is more fluid and interchangeable than ever.”

When it comes to the 40-hour work week, Allard believes “each company and employee needs to read the room.” She explains that “for me and my company, there are weeks where things are going well and I probably work less than 40 hours. Then, there are weeks where we might need to make some progress and we work 50 hours a week. Just like our world changes so quickly, so does business.”

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At SoStocked, a St. Louis Park, Minnesota, inventory management software company co-founded by Chelsea Cohen, the work week was once more traditional. But, Cohen says, it will take on a new appearance going forward. Specifically, rather than it being a minimum, she is viewing 40 hours as a maximum, “so as to not overwork [employees]. But if all the work can be done in 30 or 35 hours, then that should be a complete work week” for that staffer.

She adds, “The last year has shown us that we can be more fluid with our workplaces, which leads to [being] accommodating to people’s needs — whether it’s different work hours, or different days. We’ve seen that it can be done.”

Benefiting Everyone, Especially Women

When we researched the subject, an overwhelming majority of women entrepreneurs told us they supported changing up the work week. Some also shared their plans to make such shifts in their own businesses, while noting the tapestry of trust, open communication and mutual accountability such arrangements require.

Linn Atiyeh, the founder and CEO of Bemana, an industrial recruitment firm based in Metairie, Louisiana, is one such business owner presently rethinking the 40-hour work week. While forced, like many, to become more flexible during the pandemic, she’s since witnessed employees feeling more engaged and fulfilled with less rigid schedules. The change has been a win for retention, too. 

“I have especially been thinking about how working parents and people with difficult circumstances in their personal lives are particularly disadvantaged by the traditional structure that has dominated U.S. workplaces,” she says. “Far too many mothers, for instance, have had to leave the workforce in order to juggle the needs of their family. I believe that offering a flexible schedule would better allow us to retain these valued members of our team.”

She’s right — both anecdotally and statistically speaking, the 40-hour work week is especially untenable for parents, with women bearing the brunt of that particular fallout.

KeaBabies’ Neo agrees with Atiyeh. She adds that “as a parent myself, I experienced firsthand the difficulties the pandemic brought to working families. Flexibility is so important, and it is definitely something that we are carrying on.”

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Editor’s Note: The Story Exchange is celebrating its 10th anniversary by launching the annual Women In Science Incentive Prize. Apply now for a chance to receive $5,000 in funding for your climate-related research or startup. Deadline: July 31. 

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