The '24-Hour Work Week': Here's What Happens When People Work Less

How many hours a week do you work? How many hours a week do you think you should work?

The prime minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, announced that she wants her entire country to experiment with shorter work hours—four days a week, and just six hours per day.

Call it the 24 Hour Work Week, with apologies to Tim Ferriss. (In the United States, we average 44 hours.)

“I believe people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture,” Marin was quoted saying. “This could be the next step for us in working life.”

‘Special leave,’ they called it

Marin is 34, and the second-youngest head of state in the world. But this isn’t just a young person’s idea, and Finland isn't alone on this.

Sweden has been experimenting with a six-hour workday for several years. More recently, we heard that Microsoft gave its employees in Japan “special leave” every Friday in August. Sales went up 40 percent.

It sounds enticing, but risky.

Suppose an average person works at 60 percent efficiency, and clocks a 40 hour workweek. You'd wind up with 24 hours of efficient work.

Cut him or her down to 24 hours, but keep pay the same. This is oversimplified, but do you wind up with:

  • the same 24 hours of efficient work, because you basically carve out the inefficient time?

  • about 10 fewer hours of efficient work (the same 60 percent ratio, but applied to only 24 hours)?

  • Or else: maybe it goes even more the other way, meaning less time at work means even less efficiency.

Of course, work efficiency isn't the only factor here. The Swedish experiment, for example, was measured largely in improved health and quality of life.

106 years ago

In 1914 -- January 5, in fact, so 106 years ago last Sunday -- Henry Ford, aged 50, announced he was doing something radical at his eponymous car manufacturer.

Actually, three things:

  1. Reducing the number of hours a day that Ford factory employees were required to work, from nine to eight,

  2. Adding a 50 percent profit-sharing plan, which basically doubled their take home pay.

  3. Expanding the factory workforce from 15,000 to 20,000 employees.

"On Tuesday, following the announcement that had appeared in the morning papers, a crowd of something like 10,000 men flocked to the gates of the factory at Highland Park, besides the 15,000 men that went their to their regular work," the New York Times reported a few days later. "To disperse them, a show had to made of bringing up a fire hose."

(Careful; that link opens a pretty big .pdf file, but I had to include it because I love linking to a newspaper article from 106 years ago.)

But does it work?

Ford’s move wasn't motivated by altruism. He hoped to cut down on turnover, and also to be able to run three eight-hour shifts, so Ford could keep its machinery going around the clock.

Bottom line, it worked, all around: Productivity reportedly went up at Ford between 15 and 20 percent.

Ford later said that the increased efficiency, along with the PR bump from instituting the policy, more than paid for the increased pay and fewer hours.

I’m the last person in the world to judge this objectively. I admit. I’m a bona fide workaholic. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or not. It’s just how I am.

It comes more naturally, I suppose, since I’m my own boss. Sometimes I wish it weren’t the case.

But that’s just me.

7 other things worth a click

  1. Pier 1 is closing more stores; bankruptcy rumors swirl. (Fox Business)

  2. After almost 17 years in Iraq, are we about to abruptly withdraw all U.S. troops? There’s a lot of confusion. (Associated Press)

  3. Bed Bath & Beyond’s new CEO worked out a $250 million deal to sell stores and lease them back, because the company needs cash more than real estate. (CNBC)

  4. California sues a Silicon Valley billionaire over public beach access. (Los Angeles Times)

  5. It’s a little long, but this is a fascinating interview with Rudy Ruettiger, the walk-on Notre Dame football player who parlayed a single, 30-second game appearance more than 40 years ago into a movie and an entire career. (ESPN)

  6. Farm tractors have seen amazing innovation… along with much higher price tags. That’s why simpler, cheaper, 40-year-old used John Deere tractors are suddenly in high demand. (Star-Tribune)

  7. YouTube just announced its new policy for kids. Here are the highlights. (New York Times)

Thanks to everyone who replied with their job-hunting stories. I have a LOT of emails to go through.

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