The Complicated History (And Uncertain Future) Of Standard Work Hours

a woman working on a laptop

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Sara London for Hive
Sara London for Hive
Whether we’re hunting and gathering for our next meal or a bug in a program, humans have been working since the dawn of time. However, the history of standard working hours has been a long and tumultuous one, constantly arcing towards a more reasonable work-life balance. Currently, the standard 40-hour workweek is what employers and employees alike use to gauge work ethic, company loyalty, and sometimes even productivity.
But in 2022, after the COVID-19 pandemic left us all to work remotely for almost a full year, is that about to change?

The early days: 1835-1913.

In the days when farming and trades were the primary available vocations, working hours looked a lot different. For hundreds of years, people’s calendar’s followed the weather, the sunrise, and their area’s demand – which meant that sometimes during the year, you would be working from the moment the sun came up to the moment it set every single day. 
But when the Industrial Revolution came around, factories weren’t subject to the same conditions that farming in the wilderness provided, and workers’ lives began to shift. After labor advocates fought tooth and nail in 1835, the standard workday became ten hours for six days a week (though many didn’t abide, as the actual average amount of time one spent working in 1850 was 11.5 hours).

The eight-hour workday begins.

In 1886, a cultural shift began again. Labor rights advocates championed a slogan: “eight hours work, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest.” Eventually, the Illinois Legislature passed a law that mandated eight-hour workdays – but most employers simply didn’t listen. This led to riots, mass strikes, and even a bombing.
Data from 1870 to 1913 shows that eventually, business owners began to accept that employees were more productive when they weren’t exhausted and that spreading one extremely difficult job out over several people resulted in the job being completed more effectively. Early-industrialized countries, like the U.S. and Europe, saw workers go from 70-hour workweeks over 50 weeks per year to 59.1-hour workweeks, a reduction of 17% on average.

The forty-hour saga: 1913-2020.

The next era of the standard working hours saga might seem like a long one, but its initial efficacy was due to the efforts of one man: Henry Ford, who championed the 40-hour workweek we know today. In 1914, Ford announced that he would pay his employees twice the average minimum wage – five dollars an hour for an eight-hour workday. And in 1922, he then reduced employees’ schedules to five days a week in the factory rather than the standard six. In his research, he found that pushing workers to fulfill longer hours only yields a tiny and temporary increase in productivity that’s often outweighed by its impact on the worker. 
Ford’s ideas caught on and spread like wildfire, and by 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandated that companies pay overtime for those who worked more than 44 hours per week (which was then amended to 40 hours). And in 1940, the 40-hour workweek became law in the U.S., and for the past eighty years, it’s been the standard practice – until now. 

Working hours in modernity.

Ultimately, in the post-pandemic era, the question of working hours has arisen once again. At the beginning of the pandemic, many couldn’t stop themselves from overworking, as there was little else to do. Data shows that as of August 2022, the average non-farm workweek lasts only 34.5 hours – far less than in 2021, when working hours hit a fifteen-year high. Then, as the world began to open up again, employees began to realize how much working from home granted them a measure of freedom they had never maintained before. Many are now uncertain about why they need to go back into the office in the same way they did before the pandemic.
While many knowledge workers are still remote or in the office only a few days a week, they have a sort of control over their schedules that they’ve never known. And only now are many beginning to see that the number of hours they’re supposed to be working on a daily basis just doesn’t correlate with the amount of work they have to do. This has called into question how many hours they should be “required” to work – and what that even means, given how futuristic technology allows many to work from anywhere.

Should standard working hours change?

While we’ve come a long way in balancing our quality of life with our time in the office, our work schedules could use a little fine-tuning. Some argue that the eight-hour workday is antiquated because it’s based on a single-earner system in which the man of the household would go out and bring home the bacon – these days, many homes have dual-income earners. Additionally, jobs that required 40 hours’ worth of work did not utilize technology like we do today. And the kind of work that dominates the market now is sedentary, involving staring at a screen for eight or nine hours at a time, which human bodies were never built to do.
There are several alternatives that both companies and policy-makers are looking to change to what we once knew as “standard working hours.” A California State Assembly bill has proposed that the work week should be shifted to 32 hours, and some companies are trying to cram all 40 hours into three or four days of intense work. Some companies even emphasize flexible schedules in their job postings, telling employees that as long as they do the work, they just don’t care how often they’re in the office. 
In actuality, data shows that higher working productivity is correlated with fewer working hours – when workers have less time to work, they produce more with the time they have. But there is a bell curve, and sometimes, working too little can end up as unproductive as working too much. Many are working to find the sweet spot for how many work hours an employee truly needs to be productive. And these days, the savviest managers are the ones who realize that if productivity is the end goal, then standard working hours should be a suggestion or a guideline, not a mandate.
Sadly, no one magic number will unlock the key to productivity. And though labor activists have championed working hours that benefit employees, in the present day, we might need to look at standard working hours through a different lens. 
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This article originally appeared in Hive — the world's first democratically built productivity platform. Learn more at Hive.com.

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