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8-hour workday is holdover of old ways; research suggests 5 hours is the office time sweet spot

In the average workday, how much time do you actually spend working? Sure, maybe your hours are from 9-5, but once you factor in lunch breaks, time spent chatting with coworkers, reading news and articles online, and scrolling through social media – it’s a lot less. Now, there is an argument being made for switching to 5-hour workdays. The opinions on it are mixed.

The Case For 5 Hour Workdays

5-hour workdays for some might sound crazy. Can companies even get the work done that they need in just five hours per employee per day? It turns out, most of us aren’t actually productive for much more than that amount, anyways. A study done in the UK found that the average worker is productive for less than three hours each day. Instead, they spent most of their time:

  • Checking social media
  • Reading news sites
  • Discussing out-of-work activities with colleagues
  • Making hot drinks
  • Smoking breaks
  • Text/instant messaging
  • Eating snacks
  • Making food in the office
  • Making calls to partners/friends
  • Searching for new jobs

According to Inc., the fact is that the eight-hour workday is not based on the number of hours that the average human is able to concentrate.


Where The 8-Hour Day Comes From

This length workday was invented in 1817 during the industrial revolution. The slogan for it was 8 hours labor, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest. This was in response to the 10-16 hour days people had previously been working in factories. Naturally, at the time, an 8-hour workday seemed like a dream come true.


Now, however, our lives are different and our jobs are different. Particularly in the office situation, it is apparent that eight hours is just too long.


5 Hour Workdays: Do They Work?

If people aren’t any more productive in 8 hours than they are in 5, does this mean that we should all switch to 5-hour workdays? Some companies decided to put it to the test. The results were decidedly mixed. 


One of these companies was Agent marketing agency. The BBC asked them to do it as an experiment to see how it would change their company.


“Lots of really good things happened,” said CEO Paul Corcoran. “We looked at tasks in terms of time and said ‘we need 15 minutes to do that, half an hour to do that’ and really focused on delivering in that way. People were missing the worst of the traffic because they were coming in at 9am instead of 8.30am and they were finishing early, so they had the flexibility to do things like pick the kids up.”


The problem? Quickly, people realized that they still had to get done the same amount of work, just in less time. This meant that they were simply more stressed. In the end, the company settled on that everyone works two short days a week and three long ones. Employees had a bit more flexibility and freedom without stressing about how much or how little time they had to get things done.


Work Hard And Recharge

The CEO of German tech consulting firm Rheingans Digital Enabler kept employees’ wages and vacation days the same but reduced the workday to five hours. According to The Wall Street Journal, What he got out of it were happier, more productive employees.


“We have all experienced that: We sit in the office, out of energy, reading newspapers online or Facebook, just in need of the little pauses to recharge, but you don’t really recharge,” he explained. “My idea is focusing on the first five hours and then just leave, and have a proper break.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Another company highlighted by WIRED was Tower Paddle Boards. Tower CEO Stephen Aarstol switched to 5-hour workdays in 2015. The results were incredible: From 8 am to 1 pm, staff worked without breaks. Employees became heavily focused on maximizing output so they could have their afternoons free. What used to take them five minutes now took them three.


“They were doing stuff that real productivity experts would do. I told them they had a constraint and it forced them to creatively think.” Aarstol said.


One unexpected downside, however, was the loss of inter-employee relationships. In a shorter workday, people don’t have the same time for the usual socializing. This meant that some of the usual coworker friendships that are formed suffered somewhat.

“We realised that we were losing something on the relationship level,” said Rheingans.“It affects loyalty and team culture and the relationships people have in a company, when you don’t have time for chatter and small talk and coffee together.”


A Move To A More Flexible Schedule

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and people have been working from home for over a year, companies realize that perhaps shorter work hours aren’t the answer. Instead, more flexible work hours are. While people worked from home with their kids there, they couldn’t work for five hours straight uninterrupted. Instead, employers gave them more flexibility to schedule their working hours around their lives and families.

Rheignan created a rule that no meetings or other work-related appointments could be scheduled between noon and 2 pm because these were hours that people needed to take care of their children. This provided people an opportunity to fully focus on their families, rather than trying to do both simultaneously.

“The rest of the time is flexible: organize yourself, be mindful and be healthy. I want people to work less, not more because in the long run it’s way better and I want people to work to their strengths,he said.

So, the bottom line is that what people really want over reduced hours is more flexibility. The proverbial “work-life balance” isn’t directly tied to shorter working hours, but rather to have a work schedule that doesn’t interfere with employees’ lives and vice-versa.

Keep Reading: There Is Nothing Natural About the Way We Work


  1. How Many Productive Hours in a Work Day? Just 2 Hours, 23 Minutes…Voucher Cloud
  2. In an 8-Hour Day, the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours.” INC. Melanie Curtin
  3. The perfect number of hours to work every day? Five.” Wired. June 16, 2021.
  4. The 5-Hour Workday Gets Put to the Test.” WSJ. Eric Morath. October 24, 2019.