We’re continuing our 3-part series on finding the sweet spot for happiness at work, which directly correlates to productivity. We’ve covered one approach to encourage efficacy and growth in our Problem with Promotions post, and now we want to take a look at creativity. 

Creative teams and how to best foster creativity are buzzy conversation topics for everyone from Bill Gates to TED talks. One approach to nurturing creativity that has been gaining traction is to allow for shorter work hours. It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that working less makes folks happier. But could it really improve creativity? We had to investigate. 

A 4-Day Work Week? The Case for Working Less

We don’t do much of anything the way we did it in 1938, or in 1983 for that matter. Between technological evolution and enormous social change, if a working adult in 1938 teleported to a bustling office today they might not recognize much. One thing would ring a bell, though: our 40-hour work week, which dates all the way back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

The Evolution of Work + Productivity

How has this standard endured when nearly everything else about working has evolved?  It’s not because it’s a proven formula for productivity. In fact, a 2013 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study showed that the more time workers put in, the less productive they were. 

And this gets to the heart of the fundamental change in the nature of work in the last 100 years. In 1910, around 80% of workers worked in agriculture, labor, or as craftsmen. Jobs we might now consider to be “professional” only comprised 20% of workers. By 2000, that percentage flip-flopped, with closer to 75% percent engaged in professional, creative, or sales jobs. And this shift to creativity-fueled careers has major implications for how we work best. 

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues that 

“the more creative and complex jobs are, the less it makes sense to pay attention to hours at all.”

If you need a writer to write brilliant copy or a strategist to come up with groundbreaking brand direction, they will spend some time on easily-quantifiable tasks like research or putting pen to paper, but they will also spend hours and hours doing the more ephemeral work of just, well, thinking. 

Author Cal Newport argues in his book Deep Work that most creative workers can really only do about 4 hours of productive work a day. But does that make their output less valuable than a laborer who puts in a solid 8 hours at a factory or on a farm?

What Creative Workers Need

In order to accomplish these complex, creative jobs, people need to enter a “flow” state for hours at a time. Research found that executives are 500% more productive when they enter this flow state. So, if we prioritized structuring portions of the workday without distractions like meetings, emails, smartphones, or open office plans, people could theoretically quintuple their productivity for short stretches and accomplish much more in a shorter amount of time.

Working Less is Good For You

Working less has tons of documented benefits, including:

  • Reduced stress 
  • Healthier teams: research shows that too much time together can lead teams to the dreaded “group think,” so shorter work hours can allow more time to individuate and process
  • Improved productivity + lower stress: the brain is a resource, and it can be overtaxed. It needs time to rest and recuperate!
  • Healthier employees: research has found a correlation between working too much and depression, trouble sleeping, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease

Pros and Cons of Reduced Hours

We wondered what actually happens when employers embrace fewer hours for their workers. Fortunately, a few bold companies have been willing to test the waters, with largely positive results. 

Two Swedish tech firms shortened their workday to six hours a day for two years with great success. They felt the flexibility enabled them to attract better quality employees, and noted that staff was happier, better rested, and took fewer sick days. They also saw increased, not decreased, productivity from their programmers. Company leaders felt confident that this model could work in a range of business environments with a few small tweaks, like charging per service instead of per hour. 

Bucking the Trend in America

Could a shorter work week really catch on in workaholic America, where we work an average of 25% more hours than our European counterparts? Some companies were willing to try--and it’s working for them. Philadelphia tech company Wildbit shifted to a four day work week, which they adjust in the winter to five shorter work days so people can enjoy maximum daylight. They’re still maintaining the rapid innovation so prized in US culture--

they launched more features than the previous year since the experiment began.

Collins SBA, an accounting firm, told employees they could try a shorter workday with no pay reduction, but they needed to get 8 hrs work done in 5, meet KPIs, and keep clients happy. The firm considers the experiment a success, though not without its drawbacks. Some employees commented on the fatigue factor of an intensive 5-hour work stretch without the breaks they were used to, while others missed socializing at work. If the latter complaint sounds inconsequential, in our final post of this series we will unpack research showing how teams need social time to be successful, so this could be a serious drawback.

Is a Shorter Workweek Right for You?

A one-size-fits-all approach mandating a shorter workweek is unlikely to be successful because different industries have different needs. Here at Jute, where creativity is paramount, we’re already sold on the amazing benefits of being flexible with hours clocked. We trust our collective members to know what works for them. Maybe an intensive, 5-hour uninterrupted sprint is a great choice for a designer or writer while our project managers choose to accomplish more tasks with frequent breaks. 

One thing is certain: 

When people are given the flexibility to choose what works for them, they produce great work without sacrificing their happiness, and that’s a win/win. The benefits of a shorter workday are substantial and well-documented enough that employers might consider which elements of these bold experiments could transform their productivity, office culture, and employees’ lives. 

Ava loves leveraging research to influence conscious, empirically-based growth for organizations and the community at large. Her background in education inspires her to develop high-impact messaging and meaningful storytelling. Her project management philosophy stems from a commitment to supporting creativity and a belief in the power of the right medium meeting the right message.

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