Can Working Fewer Hours Increase Productivity? I Tried It to Find Out

Spending less time in the office while achieving more sounds great, but the reality is a little more complicated than that.
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Spending less time in the office while achieving more sounds great, but the reality is a little more complicated than that.

What is the optimal number of hours to work per week? It’s a tricky question. Most people assume we’re overworked, slaving to the point of diminishing returns. If so, limiting work hours could boost productivity. That was the rationale behind one Swedish town’s recent experiment in cutting some workweeks to 30 hours. Spend less time in the office, achieve more.

Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

It sounds great, but after experimenting with a reduced schedule for the past 9 months, I think the reality is more complicated. Work/life balance is not always achieved by working less.

My reduced workweek saga began in May of 2015 when a series of events led to my no longer having childcare coverage on Fridays. I could have hired a sitter, but summer was starting, and 3-day weekends seemed appealing to my self-employed soul. In the heroic version of this story, I was going to accomplish as much in my 4-day workweek as normal people could in 5. I was going to spend more quality time with my kids, too!

And the truth is that I did, indeed, become more efficient. But not necessarily in a good way.

Spending time with my kids is always fun, but I track my time, and my time logs show I didn’t spend that much more interactive time with them. My oldest two kids were in school or camp most days, the 4-year-old had activities or school once fall started, and the baby napped. Kids are a lot less “available” during the day than we often think—one reason time-diary studies find that stay-at-home moms and dads don’t spend magnitudes more time with their kids than working parents.

The small boost in interactive time came with a cost, though. The first problem: I couldn’t force all personal stuff to Fridays. Four kids generate a host of school events, doctors appointments, and such. I realized that over the years I’d been treating Friday as a mop-up day for what got pushed out of Monday-Thursday. Now that was no longer an option. I started falling behind.

I also discovered that as a business owner, shutting down on Fridays was tough. Other people like to do their external work—the planning calls for events, speaking with journalists, etc.—on Fridays. Since I do a lot of corporate speaking, and interviewing business figures for articles, I was constantly explaining why Fridays wouldn’t work. Or if it was a big enough project, I’d say OK, compromising my day off. I wound up putting my 4-year-old in front of the computer, and stacking up calls during what I guessed would be the baby’s nap. This shifted over the year, which was its own source of crazy-making. If I set up a phone interview with the CEO of a major corporation at 10 a.m., what if the baby decided to go down later? In the fall, my daughter took an afternoon dance class at the YMCA, so I sometimes pushed conference calls to that time (possibly the baby might doze!).

I did achieve new levels of efficiency, however. I was amazed at how often people accommodated my schedule when there was no other choice. I spent less time reading random stuff. I ignored low-priority emails (not a bad idea in general). I learned to write and edit faster. Indeed, I filed my most-read article of the year from the lobby of the YMCA on an October Friday while my 6-year-old, home for a half-day, sat with me.

That said, my shortened workweek was always a source of anxiety.

This anxiety was not pleasant for the household in general. When my husband came home on Fridays, I was usually mad at him for working normal hours like a normal person with a normal full-time job, when I’d been trying to answer hot emails while keeping the baby from eating the Legos my big kids left on the floor. I also realized that as a working mom of four, I am already highly efficient. Attempting to work fewer than 40 hours per week meant I was cutting things that mattered. I found myself viewing weekends through the lens of when I would be able to give my kids to my husband so I could squeeze in work I hadn’t done on Fridays.

This is not to say that reducing work hours would be problematic for everyone. If I had a job that could only happen in the office during scheduled hours, a 4-day week would be a more straightforward trade-off: take a 20% pay cut, do 80% of the work. I could have dialed down my ambitions. But I wanted to see if I could achieve that oft-touted productivity promise of doing the same amount of work in less time.

The answer for me is no.

So recently I found childcare coverage for Fridays. And shortly after, when a source I really needed to interview proposed a Friday afternoon slot, I realized how relieved I was to say yes.

Indeed, going back to 5 days has made me more relaxed than I’ve been in a while. Reducing my schedule forced me to plan every minute carefully, but margin makes for a more magnanimous mother. I was reminded of that the last Friday I was off. I’d timed everything perfectly so the baby would fall asleep in the car as we were picking my daughter up from preschool. We got home, I transferred the sleeping baby to his room, and put my daughter in front of the computer. I sat down to work for what I hoped would be 2 hours—the volume of stuff, roughly, I had due that day. Then the phone rang. It was the elementary school. My heart sank. I was sure it would be the nurse, telling me one of my boys was sick. I would have to wake the baby to go get him. My reduced schedule meant my first thoughts were not whether my kids were OK, but that my carefully planned day would be in tatters.

Fortunately, it was just a scheduling call. But when I got off the phone, I realized that this was exactly why this set-up was not going to work long-term. Adequate coverage and routine schedules means I can do mom stuff and business stuff. Maybe some people can run businesses during nap time, but not me. When I can give my business what it needs, then I can give my children what they need too, instead of constantly trying to maximize every minute. 

Photo Credit: Alex Mazurov