You might be able to run your business on a 6-hour workday

Experiments in Sweden are proving that giving staff equal pay for fewer hours of work might actually boost productivity

Workers singing “6 to 12” to the tune of “9 to 5”

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

Things were unusually quiet at the pub when the staff of Background AB arrived for post-work beers one Friday last month. There wasn’t the customary crush of suits toasting the start of the weekend in the central Swedish town of Falun. No office drones jockeying for a server’s attention at the taps. Not much of a boozy business crowd at all, really.

That’s because it was only 3:30 p.m. By the time company co-founder Gabriel Alenius and his colleagues at the Scandinavian design agency settled their tabs and walked out into the sunlight, it was just 5 p.m. “We were finished our beers already. And everybody else was just starting to leave their jobs,” Alenius says.

Such are the pleasures of a six-hour workday. Across Sweden, governments and private employers like Background AB have been experimenting with shortened work hours. So far, it’s showing positive results.

For the past two months, Alenius’s staff has functioned on just three hours of hyperfocused business in the morning, followed by a break for lunch and three more hours in the afternoon. Alenius insists the shortened workday hasn’t cut productivity: “You could say it went up, as we’re doing the same work in six hours instead of eight.”

At the Svartedalen retirement home in Gothenburg, about 460 kilometres southwest of Falun, managers report that the standard of care has improved since the trial reset the staff’s work-life balance earlier this year. Assistant nurses’ stress levels tumbled, while the residents themselves reported feeling more relaxed. Depending on scheduling, the trial means some staff operate on a six-hour day, which includes a 30-minute lunch, while others work seven hours with a dedicated hour-long lunch.

It sounds like a win-win. Employees like working 30 hours a week for 40 hours of pay. It also means more leisure time. Companies reportedly like it because it attracts more qualified and better candidates. But could a similar scheme work in Canada? Wayne Lewchuk, a labour studies and economics professor at McMaster University, thinks so.

Keeping the pace in the manufacturing industry for six hours is more manageable than eight, he says. As for the knowledge sector, our brains may not even be wired to focus for that long. A study by the Draugiem Group, a social networking company, used time-tracking software to monitor worker productivity in real time and found that the most efficient employees didn’t actually work longer hours. They just worked smarter, taking regular breaks (working for 52 minutes, then taking a 17-minute break). And studies have shown that time spent away from work can be the catalyst for good ideas. “A shorter workday could stimulate the mind better than a longer one,” Lewchuk says.

A six-hour day isn’t unheard of in North America. When the Kellogg’s cereal plant in Battle Creek, Mich., instituted six-hour shifts—back in 1930—work-related accidents dropped dramatically, as did labour costs, turnover and overhead. It’s believed the company was able to entice better candidates with the promise of more leisure time.

There’s a trade-off. In order for six-hour days to work, staff must say goodbye to personal phone calls, idle chit-chat and social media browsing. At Background AB, there was no time for “fika,” the traditional Swedish coffee break. Staff agreed to leave personal errands to their own time. As for taking 10 minutes to watch the new Star Wars trailer? Another time.

Depending on the industry, though, Lewchuk thinks the Swedes are on to something. “We used to work in order to live, to feed ourselves and house ourselves. Now it seems that we live to work,” he says. “We’ve got the equation completely backwards.”