Can you run your business on a 5-hour workday?

Fifteen months ago, Tower Paddle Boards abandoned the standard eight-hour workday. Since June 2015, employees work five-hour days, from 8am to 1pm. Five hours. Five.

You can probably imagine all kinds of problems with such a short workday, but no: the same amount of stuff gets done in four days than in five, mostly because when you have less time, you tend to compress stuff out that doesn’t matter. The 10-person firm made it to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies with a 40% increase in sales, and will hit $9 million in sales this year. 

The switch to a five-hour days was carefully planned. They did a test run for a few months under the guise of "summer hours." They instituted a 5% profit-sharing plan to get employees to focus on outputs (production), not inputs (number of hours on the clock) in order to remind them that they had to be as productive as they were during the old eight-hour workdays. They used improved technology -- a better FAQ page, video tutorials for customers, automation of previously manual processes -- to reduce the burden on the team and to make work flow more quickly. You can read all about the changes here.

However -- and this is the key point -- these improvements were driven by a goal to do more work in less time so that employees could have richer personal lives. (They are a surf lifestyle company, after all.) By restricting the critical resource of time, everyone was forced to figure out how to produce more efficiently. 

Tightening the constraints on office hours is no different from a company telling a division that it has to reduce lead time on a product, or take some percentage of cost out of component. Changing the standard forces the organization to figure out a better way to work. The only difference in the Tower Paddle Boards story is that the new standard was imposed for better work-life balance (surely an element of respect for people), and -- most importantly -- that the president challenged the unspoken assumption that people had to work 40 hours per week. 

Tower Paddle Boards is just one example. Numerous companies, among them KPMG and Reusser Design have moved to four-day workweeks (although they work 10-hour days), as has Slingshot SEO. Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp does the same. He says, "the same amount of stuff gets done in four days than in five, mostly because when you have less time, you tend to compress stuff out that doesn’t matter." And all these CEOs report that not only do employee morale, engagement, and retention skyrocket, the work schedule makes them the employer of choice in their geographic area. 

I've written before (here and here) about the way that the lean community treats managerial work differently from shop floor manufacturing work. We've come to accept that office work won't get done in 40 hours per week, and that working late at night or on weekends is normal. Instead, we should be seeing that behavior for what it is: a sign of a problem for which weekend work is simply a countermeasure.

The example set by Tower Paddle Boards shows the benefits of forcing a new, higher standard on office and managerial work. You may not be able to run your business on a 20-hour week, but you might be surprised at how much more efficient you can become.