In the early 1900s, Henry Ford needed to hire factory workers for his exploding auto empire. So, he took a unique path to attract his employees: by offering them an eight-hour workday.
Ford’s proposition of a 9-5 gig in a car factory may not seem all that alluring now, but his logic was quite innovative for the time.
A hundred and twenty years ago, most workers were accustomed to grueling shifts of 12 hours or more. Working a mere eight hours at Henry Ford’s factory probably felt like a vacation—one that, thanks to more alert workers, also bolstered productivity and output.
Fast forward 120 or so years, and working 9 to 5 (or some variation of it) has become the norm. But just because a 9-to-5 gig is standard practice doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee for efficiency, productivity, or employee happiness.
In the last few decades, as technology has advanced, work hours have remained the same—potentially at a cost to workers and their companies. It’s time to revisit work schedule expectations and reap the benefits of autonomy along with it.
Here are four reasons why working 9 to 5 isn’t ideal to make a living today.
1. Humans Aren’t Machines
In Ford’s day, maximum output was the key to success. The more cars you built during a shift, the more successful you were—and workers on the assembly line were just another cog in the overall wheel of production.
But now, most of us don’t assemble Model T’s in factories. And there’s just no magic formula to guarantee maximum output or effectiveness.
“The idea that employees are like machines—if they put eight hours in you’ll get x dollars out—is absurd,” Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, told Inc.
Humans aren’t machines. That means not every person’s rhythms and the skills required for their jobs will mesh with a traditional, 9-5 work schedule. Yes, working 9 to 5 every day might empower one employee for success. But a traditional schedule could also quench another person’s ability to tap into other skills, like creativity, innovation, or teamwork.
I’ll be the first to say there’s a time and place for office hours. Whenever possible, I highly value having team members together to collaborate(plus, scheduling meetings is convenient when everyone’s in the office at the same time).
But I don’t see my “office hours” as the most important part of my job. Actually, some of my best ideas come to me when I’m not at my desk. I often brainstorm while hiking on weekends or while at the gym early in the morning. When these unexpected ideas creep up on me, I carve out time to get work done—and it’s usually not between 9 and 5.
With a bit of flexibility, workers can determine when they do their best work, and then plan accordingly. That’s why one CEO allows his employees to pick between four 10-hour days or five eight-hour days, and why many companies are following suit—the goal is to let go of rigidity in favor of flexibility and all the benefits that come with it.
To determine what type of work schedule is ideal for you to do your job well, think about when you do your best work. When are you most creative and alert? When do you feel most motivated?
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You might be more productive and creative first thing in the morning. If that’s the case, work then. On the other hand, if the late evening hours fuel your best ideas, carve out a few hours of work time before bed.
2. Flexibility Increases Productivity
Flexibility at work isn’t just a nice add-on to a benefits package or a positive aspect of workplace culture. In fact, I’ve come to believe flexibilty is essential for the success of both employees and companies.
Think about a time in your life you adhered to a rigid, predictable work schedule, whether or not by any decision of your own. Next, reflect on a time when you worked more hours than you wanted to, just to meet a demanding supervisor’s expectations for your role.
How happy were you during that time of life? And be honest, how well did you really do at your job? Did you enjoy showing up every day, or did you dread “clocking in”?
If you’ve experienced burnout before (or if you’re in the midst of it now), you will probably be happy to hear that working too much isn’t just bad for you. It’s also not good for your employer’s bottom line. There’s evidence that the more hours you work, the less productive you will be.
On the flip side, it’s happier workers who actually do the best work. That’s right: Your brain actually works better when you’re content.
It follows, then, that when people have time for a personal life—to pursue hobbies, invest in relationships, and get a good night’s sleep—they’ll be better workers as a result.
3. Flexibility Enhances Focus
Another argument against working 9 to 5: The constraints of a traditional “day job” schedule could keep people from focusing on the work in front of them.
If you’re someone who works well under the pressure of a deadline, then you understand how your most productive workdays aren’t necessarily your longest ones.
I know the feeling. Personally, I tend to lose focus and momentum when I’m stuck at my computer for too many hours. As the day drags on, my attention and interest in the tasks at hand dwindle little by little.
There may be something psychological at play in either scenario. In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir argue that having less time to get something done heightens productivity by increasing focus. The idea is that constraints force strategy, which leads to better (and often, more) work.
A flexible work schedule yields benefits for employees and employers alike. If you constrain yourself to a shorter (or simply more flexible) workday, you’ll have more incentive to manage your time well, which means high-priority tasks and projects will receive priority.
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4. Working From Home Adds New Distractions and Demands
Life today feels unfamiliar to many of us, and our work is no exception. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, many employees are working from their homes instead of at the office—and forcing remote workers to adhere to the same 9-5 work hours they held in the office may not make sense.
Generally, with a new environment, you can’t expect people to play by the same rules. For one thing, many employees might want to start the day sooner or later than usual, without the burden of commuting to and from the office.
On the other hand, doing one’s job from a home office presents all kinds of new distractions, from taking care of kids and pets to the allure of a midday nap on the couch.
It’s not just the work environment that’s shifted due to the pandemic but also the workers’ abilities to meet the demands of their jobs in general.
Take parents, for example, who may now be responsible for taking care of a toddler or overseeing their kids’ distance learning along with juggling the demands of their jobs. With these new demands in the work environment, a traditional 9-5 schedule simply isn’t a fair, or realistic, expectation.
Flexibility enables these worn-down workers to focus on the most important things in their lives—their well-being and the health of their families—so they can in turn bring their best to work to the table.
It might take time for the culture to catch up to modern realities—legend has it, it took an auto tycoon to change the norm more than a century ago. But in my book, the perks of autonomy at work are a win-win for everyone.
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