Is less more? Management challenges of a six-hour work day

Sweden is encouraging businesses to implement 6-hour work days to reap benefits like increased employee energy levels, lower staff turnover, improved productivity and even raised profits.

There was a mixed reaction to the news here in the UK (where the average employee works 8.7 hours per day) with some even suggesting that if employees can get as much done in 6 hours as they did in 8, they must not have been working very hard.

… which is kind of the whole idea behind the 6-hour work day.

The theory is that employees working for 8-hours-plus only tend to get six hours of useful work done anyway, filling the rest of the time with personal tasks, breaks, and distractions, leaving them tired in the evenings, with less time to spend with their families.

Here in the UK, there’s certainly a desire for increased flexibility around work, and work-life balance is one of the top priorities for today’s workers, so a reduction in working hours would certainly be welcomed by employees – but would it really improve productivity on the whole for businesses?

Here are some of the challenges that changing the working day as we know it could bring:

Need to ensure time is spent working to maximum capacity

Moving to a 6-hour working day only makes sense if employers don’t believe their workers are fully productive over 8-hours – otherwise there’d be no gain to be made. So, if your staff aren’t working to 100% capability in 8 hours, what has to change to ensure productivity improves in 6-hours?

Sweden’s answer: eliminating distractions including access to social media, freedom to chat with colleagues, and getting stricter about how employees spend their time.

Reportedly, staff responded positively to this increased intensity, with boosted happiness and energy levels.

Whether this would be the case for all staff is questionable, and management must therefore consider whether potential productivity increases would outweigh the impact of a more intense and potentially stressful day, as well as the impact of increased scrutiny on employees.

Need to cover more hours

Regardless of productivity, certain jobs require employees’ presence within set hours. In those cases, reducing hours may benefit employees but necessitate hiring more, which is exactly what happened in a Swedish nursing home which trialed the 6-hour working day to reduce burnout among staff.

Following the changes, staff and residents reported boosted happiness levels, although this came at a cost in the region of $1m spent on hiring staff to cover the required hours.

The question for management is whether possibly increasing happiness and energy levels in staff would justify significant cost increases, whether overall productivity would be improved, or if there are other ways that money could be spent to yield better overall results for the business.

Need to adjust communication methods

Communication is vital in all businesses, with meetings and conference calls among the most commonly-used tools to achieve this, especially in businesses with employees around the globe.

Cutting the work day down to 6 hours further limits the windows of opportunity for communication to take place, and may increase the pressure on staff to be available at all hours, which could prove counter productive to the aims of the 6-hour work day.

In Sweden, management took steps to reduce meetings, conference calls, and work in general which were not essential or productive. While results so far appear positive, management would need to consider how to ensure reducing hours wouldn’t slow down communication and decision making.

Adapting management techniques to new working patterns

We have a raft of experience in helping businesses improve productivity through manager training.

Our Performance Management Suite contains a wide range of ready-made eLearning courses to empower managers to develop high performing teams and maximise performance capability.

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