The Death of the Workday: Is 9 to 5 Working Obsolete?

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Is the 9 to 5 working model still relevant—and does it have a future? Or are technical and cultural changes slowly rendering it obsolete?

There was a time when the 9 to 5 was the dominant model of a days work. Increasingly, we are seeing that change.

Freelancing and self-employment are on a steep upward curve. Shift work is increasingly prevalent as businesses stay open later. Even full-time, Monday to Friday employees are typically expected – and expect, themselves – a level of flexibility beyond the usual working hours.

So, is the 9 to 5 working day dying – or does it still have a future?

Related Article: How Companies Are Changing Their Culture to Attract (And Retain) Millennials

Origins

During the Industrial Revolution and the decades that followed, hellish 16-hour work days were pretty much the norm.

It was Welsh social reformer Richard Owen who saw that this was unsustainable and began to campaign for the 8-hour work day. The uncomplicated rationale was that, of the 24 hours in a day, we should aim to split them equally between work, leisure and rest.

Henry Ford was among the first to introduce the 8-hour day into his company back in 1914. It proved to be a roaring success, in terms of both productivity and profitability. Of course, other companies quickly followed suit.

It seemed that this was the beginning of an inexorable trend of working hour reduction and, in 1930, John Maynard Keynes was actually telling anyone who'd listen that, thanks to technology, we'd be working 15 hours a week before the century was out.

Not Quite...

Clearly Keynes' prediction was wide off the mark. The 40-hour work week has remained largely unchanged for decades, and indeed, in many countries, people routinely work longer than that.

Keynes was right to expect profound cultural and technological changes, though. And they're slowly opening up the question over whether working between 9 and 5 is still the way to go.

Technology

Clearly, advances in online technology have changed the game; workers can now securely access their work whenever and wherever they need to.

This has resulted in an unprecedented rise in the number of people working from home. In the days of Owen, Ford and Keynes, workers were required to be physically present to do their job. But now – with people working remotely – it's easy to see the idea of setting 'fixed hours' in which they should be doing their work as slightly archaic.

Technological advancements have also prompted a disconcerting rise in the number of office workers taking work home with them. Four in five UK office workers say they check their work email after leaving the office – and a third log on before they even get out of bed in the morning.

So, in fact, it's hard to quantify exactly how many hours people might be working. Sure, they're in the office 9 to 5 – but how much of their free time is being swallowed up by work demands outside those hours?

Related Article: 5 Ways To Make Work From Home Options That Work For Your Business

Culture and Competition

Cultural and generational changes have brought about a real demand for immediacy among consumers.

It's now incredibly difficult for companies to simply 'switch off' after hours, because so many modern consumers expect answers to their questions and problems right now. Not tomorrow, and certainly not 'after the weekend.' This is a huge challenge to the 9 to 5 philosophy.

As a consequence, businesses find themselves under pressure to expand their hours of availability—particularly digital companies.

That competition, it seems, extends to the mindset individual employees. With the economic downturn that has characterised most of the last century, many workers are so preoccupied with job security that they'll happily go the extra mile – often risking burnout – to try and stay ahead.

The Problems With 9 to 5

It would be churlish to suggest that the 9 to 5 model doesn't have its problems. The most glaring one is that simply working for 8 hours a day is no guarantee of productivity. Clearly, employees can sit at your desk for 8 hours and actually achieve very little – a lot of time is wasted at work, a problem which seems to be getting worse. Is 'time in seat' really an accurate measure of productivity?

The arbitrary 9 to 5 model also takes no stock of when people work best. Human beings are a diverse bunch. We often work quite differently – some of us are slow-starting night owls who love to hammer out the work when others are still asleep. Others are early risers who are ready to get started the second our head leaves the pillow, but are burned out by mid-afternoon. These differences are more pronounced than you might think – did you know, for example, that 44% of women and 37% of men say they prefer to work at night?

There's also the fact that 9 to 5 is, by definition, rigid and inflexible. This can be detrimental to recruitment, retention and morale. Millennials particularly value the idea of flexibility, with 45% saying it takes precedence over pay when choosing a new job. Stats like this are creating a pressing need for companies to be at least flexible to some extent.

But Is It Still Viable?

With all that said, the 9 to 5 still has its supporters, and, indeed, many merits. While it can seem draconian to seemingly 'deny' flexibility, ultimately, it can be a useful way to draw a line in the sand between work and leisure – in exactly the way 19th century reformers imagined it.

The problem with flexibility, of course, is that in many places it's become a by-word for 'working more.' It means people are still working their core hours but taking work home with them as well. Against this backdrop, it's probably no coincidence that we're seeing a rise in health issues related to overworking, including obesity and a mental health crisis. Perhaps this is because all-too-many employers are expecting their employees to be more widely available for work, without providing flexibility in return.

As Ricardo Semler said in a must-watch TED talk, “We've all learned how to go on Sunday night to email and work from home. But very few of us have learned how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon.”

Against all odds, could the old-fashioned 9 to 5 working model be the perfect solution to the modern problem of overworking?

Closing Thoughts

Experts are far from unanimous in the debate over whether the 9 to 5 model has a long-term future – and it's difficult to reach any firm conclusion at this point. Despite all the technological changes and cultural upheaval, an idea that seems totally antiquated still has its merits.

What do you think – does 9 to 5 still fit the bill for your company? Will it remain the 'default' model in future, or will it slowly become obsolete?

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