As many offices begin to reopen after two years, white collar reluctant to return full time. People want more flexible work hours and office rules — and they’re switching jobs to find those accommodations. Polls indicate that more than half of employees are in favor companies that offer flexibility in when and where to work.

Politicians are listening. Rep. Mark Takano (D-California) introduced a bill last summer that would enshrine a four-day workweek “as the new normal.” New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) even thought: “There may never be a five-day week again.

This desire to work differently has distinct echoes of the past reminiscent of WK Kellogg who introduced the six-hour day to workers in 1930. Kellogg’s experience offers useful insights for today’s business leaders and politicians who seek a new way forward after the pandemic disrupts the office. the schedules and work-life balance of millions of professionals.

Concerns about too much work – and not enough rest and leisure – hampering productivity date back to the early days of industrialization, when some observers began to notice a link between excessive work hours and burnt-out employees and a decline in productivity. the productivity. The 18th century Welsh textile manufacturer and philanthropist Robert Owen called for “eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, eight hours of rest.“In 1886, this slogan had crossed the Atlantic to Assemblies of the Knights of Laborand by 1890 the international trade union movement had placed the number of hours worked each day at the center of its campaign for workers’ rights.

At the same time, enlightened industrialists are beginning to notice the link between fair hours and productivity. In 1918, Lord Leverhulme began advocating a six-hour working day in Great Britain. Leverhulme noted that “an appropriate allocation of time is that which will yield the best results and is the most pressing problem to be solved.”

The shorter hours movement received a huge boost from Henry Ford, who pioneered the five-day workweek in the 1920s. But it was cereal magnate Kellogg who, in the teeth of the Great Depression, embraced Leverhulme’s idea – albeit for a different reason. Instead of having three eight-hour shifts a day at its factory in Battle Creek, Michigan, Kellogg instituted four six-hour shifts.

The economy drove Kellogg. With so many out of work, he wanted to create more jobs for people, thus winning the support of President Herbert Hoover’s Emergency Jobs Organizing Committee in 1931.

Kellogg’s experiment had some unintended consequences – positive ones. There was the rise of the “Kelloggs couples,” who had time for their families and each other. The new shorter shifts have also given bigger productivity, accrediting the theories of Leverhulme. Well-being and absenteeism of workers improved, and there were fewer workplace accidents. The move seemed like a win-win for Kellogg and its employees.

The adoption of shorter workweeks and working hours to boost productivity and well-being was dubbed “liberation capitalism”, and other companies soon followed Kellogg’s lead.

Brands such as Remington have maintained not only shorter hours, but also weekly pay levels, so working fewer hours hasn’t hurt employees’ bottom line. Employers seemed to realize that healthier, happier workers were more productive.

Yet World War II created a patriotic fervor and economic need that conflicted with a desire for increased leisure and work close to home.

By the 1950s, consumerism and the rise of suburbia took hold, diminishing the culture of shorter hours. There was a lot of work to be done and longer hours meant more pay and more purchasing power – something highly desirable in the new consumer culture.

The 41,000 miles of interstate highways inaugurated in 1956 Federal Highway Aid Act also made longer journeys possible. A new era in long-distance commuting to work has begun and work-life balance is no longer on the agenda.

By 1960, the six-hour day was shrinking even at Kellogg’s company, and by the 1970s Herbert Freudenberger’s famous term “burnout” became widely understood.

As bosses demanded workers put in more time, employees increasingly demanded flexible working arrangements. In 1974, historian Studs Terkel published “Working”, in which he interviewed hundreds of workers across the United States. He observed that the work was “a search for a kind of life rather than a kind of death from Monday to Friday”.

Terkel was prescient in giving voice to the boredom and lack of purpose felt by most workers, which only grew during the 1980s. Throughout the decade, working time – which n had stopped declining for a century – started to climb and employers began to value presenteeism. Increasing globalization has also driven them to seek efficiency and cost reduction at the expense of worker welfare. In 1985, the last six-hour workday ended at Kellogg’s Corporation.

Although employees — especially professional knowledge workers — have never stopped wanting better life balance and flexibility, for decades the market has left them no room to demand these accommodations. Between 1979 and 1990, the number of employed men working more than 48 hours per week increased from 15.4 to 23.3%. In 1997, the International Labor Organization noted that Americans were logging 2,000 hours per year per capita, more than their counterparts around the world.

At the same time, digital technology has changed the game, allowing employees to work from outside the office. Companies responded by granting more “flexibility”. But far from being benevolent, this decision simply ushered in the era of “always on”, in which the promise of flexibility masked the reality that technology had made it possible to work at all hours of the day and night.

But if flexibility has not always been a good thing, the advent of the Internet and the smartphone has also triggered a backlash against presenteeism, in particular. In 2007, Tim Ferris’ “four-hour work week” topped the bestseller list, the same year that Apple unveiled the iPhone and Airbnb was born, quickly followed in 2010 by the creation from WeWork. Mobility has become less a journey from home to work than a job from anywhere.

In the decade before the coronavirus pandemic shut down offices around the world, new tensions have emerged between the long-hours culture of older generations and Millennials and Gen Z’s focus on well-being, purpose and sanity. When Elon Musk remarked in 2018 that “no one ever changed the world 40 hours a week,” he was going against the grain of culture. The following year, the World Health Organization officially included “burnout” as “an occupational phenomenon”.

The pandemic has exploded the problem, with workers’ thirst for a better balance between work and home becoming clear. It also turned out to be the largest unintended experiment in working time since 1930. Now technology means that the knowledge worker’s “factory” can be at home, requiring a greater need for delimitation, limits and capping of time.

This is why the global campaign for the four-day week is gaining momentum: it symbolizes the need to reduce working time and find the right balance between paid work, wherever it occurs. Microsoft’s latest trend survey doesn’t focus on location – broadly accepting that hybrid working is here to stay – but on time, and notes a 252% increase in weekly time spent by Teams users in meetings.

Although many companies remain focused on location-related presenteeism, with incentives such as all-you-can-eat buffet and salary increase To attract workers to offices, employers might be better off focusing on reducing the length of working days and nurturing – not stifling – the new hybrid habits that have developed.

History shows that when workers have more control over their time and work-life balance improves, business results also benefit. Workers’ time, and how it is spent, will drive change, and history shows it always has.


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