By Emily Erickson
This past week I worked an inordinate (to me) amount of hours, with deadlines, technology mishaps, and expanding project scopes colliding into a perfect storm of crushing responsibility and too much screen time.
What was surprising — aside from the amount of coffee one person can consume during the course of a day — was how uncomfortable the long work hours felt to me. Growing up, especially in an area with a high concentration of agricultural and industrial jobs, being a “worker” was something to hang your hat on.
My life in work began with a babysitting certification at age 12, which “equipped” me to care for four children under the age of 6 for $5 an hour. An early worker’s permit afforded me the opportunity to swirl ice cream cones at age 14. Weekend and after-school “sandwich artistry” shifts later gave way to bartending and waitressing through college. And 40-hours-plus take-home responsibilities were inherent in my first “career job” in social services.
But since being self-employed, and since making a conscious shift away from conflating work output with my self-worth, the 40-plus-hour workweek — especially from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — feels if not entirely antiquated, then at least a bit nonsensical.
The examination of work-life is not a new concept, dating as far back as the notion of wage labor itself. As we transitioned away from simply doing what was necessary to sustain our family units and into the Industrial Revolution, humans were reimagined into units of productivity — literal cogs in the machine of rising capitalism. The 70-hour workweeks of the 1800s were gradually whittled down to 60- and 50-hour weeks at the onset of the labor movement, with people fighting to reclaim leisure via protests, strikes and unionization.
Eventually, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 40-hour workweek was standardized, not because of sweeping research about the exact amount of hours a person is most productive in a day; but, rather, because three eight-hour shifts fit into a factory day and spreading out work over more people was one prong in the effort to combat the Depression-era unemployment crisis.
This punch-your-time-card, 40-hour standardization was left largely untouched, serving as the modern template for a productive, balanced workweek — scrutinized only by trendy global tech companies or wealthy, progressive governments. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic rocked our traditional work-life structure, accelerating conversations around what a workweek can and should look like in a wide array of industries.
Not only are people reconsidering how many hours a day to work (with some companies transitioning to six-hour workdays) or how many days a week to dedicate to getting those hours (like the rise of the four-day workweek), but also when, where and how those hours are actually worked.
The most recognizable deconstruction of how we “clock in” amid the pandemic is remote work, with working from home being an essential survival tool for many employees and businesses over the past two years. With calls from workers to maintain this flexibility — and citing no obvious loss in productivity — many companies are adopting this new structure full-time or crafting hybrid models with optional office hours, co-working space subscriptions for employees, or split time between the home and office.
Another new take on work structure is the asynchronous week, with employers opening up the spectrum of acceptable times to be clocked in. In an asynchronous work schedule, hitting daily hour goals takes precedence over when those hours actually happen. Companies will encourage teams with overlapping responsibilities to sync their schedules when necessary, but rely mostly on intranet systems or stored virtual channels for communication and information sharing. This allows employees to work whenever is best for them on any given day.
Finally, my favorite reimagination of the traditional workweek is the project- or deadline-based work schedule, in which employees have a quota of tasks to accomplish in a given amount of time, with no set hourly or daily structure for how to reach that quota. Aside from occasional meetings or coordination with team members, employees have full agency with when and how much they work in a week to fulfill their responsibilities — as long as they meet their deadlines.
Now, obviously, not all industries can freely reimagine what it looks like to be at work, but as more of these concepts leave the realm of conversation and become commonplace, we’re collectively inching closer to outgrowing our standardized 40 hours.
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