Could a 6-Hour Day Work for Full-Time Employees?

Companies in Sweden are finding out

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 13, 2016
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Work for six hours but be paid for eight? Some businesses in Europe are experimenting with the idea.

In February 2015, 80 assistant nurses at an elder care home in Gothenburg, Sweden, began working a 30-hour week made up of six-hour workdays on an eight-hour salary as part of a controlled trial. They are being compared to the same number of staff members working a traditional eight-hour day at a similar employer, according to a BBC report. The New York Times reported that an audit published in mid-April of the six-hour schedule “concluded that the program in its first year had sharply reduced absenteeism, and improved productivity and worker health.”

A hospital in Gothenburg also moved to a six-hour workday, along with two hospital departments at a facility in Umea, also in Sweden. At a Toyota service center in Gothenburg, mechanics have worked six-hour shifts for eight hours’ worth of pay since 2002. And Agent Marketing in Liverpool, England, conducted a trial six-hour workday in December 2015 and January 2016 with its 14-member staff that included a mandatory hour-long lunch break away from their desks. Initially, it started as a strict 9 a.m.-4 p.m. schedule for everyone, but that changed to allow employees to work shifts—some coming in earlier or later than 9 a.m. to avoid heavy traffic, according to a story in The Independent.

Swedish company Brath, a tech company in Stockholm and Ornskoldsvik that employs 22 people, made the switch to shorter workdays three years ago. CEO Maria Brath cited it as a great recruitment and retention strategy and said employees are more rested and more productive.

“We did it because we believed it was a smart thing to do,” she wrote in a Sept. 10, 2015, company blog post. “Today we get more done in six hours than comparable companies do in eight. ... We believe nobody can be creative and productive in eight hours straight. Six hours is more reasonable, even though we too, of course, check Facebook or the news at times.”

A 2016 survey of 1,021 office workers and 503 decision-makers in the United Kingdom found that  60 percent of bosses would consider introducing a six-hour workday; 100 percent of HR professionals said they would consider it. Two out of five decision makers though employees would be be as productive in six hours as in eight, one-third thought employees would take fewer sick days and 29 percent thought they would be more creative.

There are consequences—some favorable, some less so—to a six-hour workday.

During the controlled trial at the elder care home, 14 extra staffers were hired to compensate for the shorter hours and new shift patterns, The Guardian reported.

And at Agent Marketing, at least one employee who enjoyed having the extra personal time acknowledged that sometimes six hours wasn’t long enough to design and build the websites the company creates, The Huffington Post reported. When that happened, he or others would put in more hours to meet clients’ needs. But the six-hour schedule also forced Agent Marketing to rethink meetings, reducing the normally hour-long gatherings to eight minutes.

Is It Feasible for Companies in the U.S.?

But could U.S.-based businesses adopt a 6-hour workday and still remain competitive and productive?

“It’s so interesting, how it’s catching on, like wildfire” outside the U.S., said Pramila Rao, associate professor at Marymount University in Washington, D.C., where she teaches global HR management. However, adopting the concept would require a change in mindset—from leadership and employees—for it to work, noted Rao, who is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Global Expertise panel.

In the U.S., working long hours often is associated with more pay, career advancement and a business’s profitability.

“We are so hesitant to even take vacation time,” pointed out Rao, who thinks the U.S. suffers from an epidemic of presenteeism.

She thinks a shorter workday would lead to more rested, more productive workers. She suggested piloting it on a small scale in manufacturing environments and measuring productivity. As an overall concept, though, Rao said she thinks it would require restructuring of policies that now tie employee benefits to hours worked, as well as how exempt vs. nonexempt status is determined.

SHRM Global Expertise Panel Member Carol Olsby, SHRM-SCP, managing director of Seattle-based Carol Olsby & Associates, an HR consultancy, worked for Scandinavian companies for more than a decade. The concept of a six-hour workday reflects that region’s “very, very family-oriented” culture, she said. It’s feasible for some U.S. companies, said Olsby, who worked at a technology company for six hours, five days per week, a few years after her son was born. She found she was more efficient in managing her time.

“I made sure my employer was happy with their decision” for her to work a shorter day, she said.

She doesn’t think a six-hour workday would require a large overhaul of how compensation and benefits are figured, noting that an organization has leeway on how those offerings are structured. For many companies, though, the challenge would be the expense. Unless work assignments were reallocated, employers would need to hire additional employees, as the elder care facility in Sweden found, Olsby noted. As for employees being paid for eight hours but working six, “companies couldn’t afford that.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News. Follow her @SHRMwriter.

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