Where did we get the 40-hour work week, anyway? Was it developed by some super-smart think tank as the “perfect” number of working hours? Is it based on years of meticulous research? Nope. We have the good ol’ Industrial Revolution to thank for our current 9-to-5 grind. Before that, people actually used to work around 60 hours each week. Then, machines came along, making labor more efficient, cutting the price of leisure goods, and allowing for wage increases. But now, in the era of the i-Everything, should we be thinking about another big shift in the working world?
“We need our workplaces to evolve a little more,” says Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, employment expert and director of the New England Work and Family Association. “The technology has evolved, our families are changing, and people’s individual needs are changing.”
Learning website Treehouse isn’t shy about its love of the company’s four-day work week. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin recently discussed the idea that people don’t need to be working as frantically as we do now. So, why not condense the work week — or even split one full-time job into multiple part-time jobs? Just as Henry Ford was one of the early adopters of the 40-hour week, today’s industry big-wigs might be redefining the way we work yet again.
There are already plenty of innovative ways to shake up the way we work. Here are just seven examples of non-9-to-5 job arrangements and their pros and cons — straight from the people who work them.
Flextime: Employees who have flex schedules get to set their own hours, usually within a time range. Flex work is often paired with the ability to work remotely.
Pros: Even just a little wiggle room in a schedule can have a hugely positive impact on an employee’s work-life balance, says Sabatini Fraone, because they can fit in errands and important events. Shanti Bond, an outreach coordinator, and her co-workers flex their time around community and school calendars. Some people would be overwhelmed by the chaos, but Bond sees that as a plus: “I enjoy variety in my life,” she explains, “so it’s nice to know that I’m going to get hours and get my work done, but I’m also able to keep things interesting.”
Cons: Bond’s varied schedule can make predicting her future work hours a bit like trying to predict the weather, an added challenge when it comes to advance planning. Sabatini Fraone says that workplaces with variable hours often have difficulty scheduling meetings, a problem that may require the creation of core hours where everyone is present.
Shift Work: Jobs that require 24-hour coverage, like hospitals and hotels, usually operate in shifts — some in 10, 12, or 24-hour blocks with varied time off.
Pros: For employers that need to cover 24 hours, this is the best way to do it. And, workers appreciate that these shifts allow them longer stretches of time off. David Larson, who has worked long shifts as a firefighter and deputy sheriff, says that his schedule allows him to get much of his at-home to-do list checked off on weekdays, which means his weekends are truly free, and he can spend them with his family.
Cons: Larson says that these jobs require workers to sleep during the day — which is no problem, so long as you like your sleep sprinkled with phone calls, visitors, and bright sunlight. Air-traffic controller Dan Ferlito has less trouble with the sleep schedule; some of his shifts have built-in rest breaks. But, his hours can still conflict with his daily life — like when he’s trying to enjoy days off during the rest of the world’s work week. “It’s 4:30 p.m., and all of a sudden you’re stuck in traffic on your weekend,” says Ferlito. The odd timing also means shift workers are better off befriending others who share their off-kilter free time.
Job-Share: A work arrangement where two people share one full-time job.
Pros: Job-shares can be a big benefit for employers, says Sabatini Fraone, because they bring two sets of talent to one job. Katie Maldonado, who shares a clinical social work position, agrees. She and her partner have different strengths, which make for one well-balanced team. The job-share also gives Maldonado more time with her family. “This was the perfect option,” she says.
Cons: Maldonado and her job partner have to be hyper-vigilant about providing consistent care to their shared caseload. They email each other details about each shift, which can add excess time to the workday. Sabatini Fraone also points out that benefits like health care and vacation time may be limited in job-share positions.
Compressed: This is a schedule where people work the allotted time for their pay period (such as 40 hours per week), but over fewer days, which allows for longer stretches of time off.
Pros: Joyce Aldred is a special-program case manager. She squeezes 80 hours of work into nine days and gets a three-day weekend every other week. Pat Hall, an orthopedic physical therapist, compresses her schedule by working through lunch, so she can leave early each day. “When my children were small, it was just very convenient to do that because it meant that I didn’t have to have them in after-school care as long,” says Hall.
Cons: Taking time off when the rest of the world means you run the risk of delaying pressing tasks. “You really have to be disciplined and have a work ethic around meeting obligations,” says Aldred, who makes sure to have someone cover any urgent requests on her day off. And, Sabatini Fraone points out that for some — whether because of their children, pets, or disposition — these work days are just too long.
Freelance: Freelance workers are not technically employees of any business. They set their own workload and hours, and they generally get their work through various temporary contracts.
Pros: People who take on freelancing often do so because they value the freedom. “Freelancing has allowed me to pursue creatively rewarding projects and be self-directed,” says Tani Ikeda, co-founder and executive director of the filmmaking nonprofit imMEDIAte Justice. Compared to traditional work environments, Ikeda says freelancing is more stimulating and has allowed her to be more innovative.
Cons: Many freelancers run their entire operations alone, making it difficult to separate life from work. Ikeda’s schedule is often erratic, but she is careful to split her day into administrative and creative portions. Freelancers may also experience anxiety about not having steady work — and the lack of co-workers could feel isolating.
Traveling Consultants: Schedules vary, but consultants often work one or two days at a home office and spend the rest of their work week at a client site.
Pros: A main perk of these jobs is the good pay— we’re talking $96,000 a year on average — and in recent years they’ve focused more on work-life balance. Many firms have adopted 3-4-5 schedules, where workers spend three nights out of town, four days at a client site, and a fifth day back at the home office — as opposed to traditional consulting schedules, which kept workers away from home for all five business days. Jeff Armstrong, a note investor consultant, says, “When you’re doing what you want to do, and there’s a purpose for it...it makes it easier.” He enjoys his travel schedule and is able to mix in downtime.
Cons: Consultant jobs can feel all-encompassing and overwhelming, and many people who hold such intense travel schedules are prone to burning out. “It makes for a very hectic week,” explains Armstrong. Maryella Gockel, Americas Flexibility Leader for Ernst and Young, says that the time spent at a client site often changes as projects go on, depending on what the client needs. This could mean shorter weeks, but it could mean longer ones, too — and some workers don’t like that the 3-4-5 isn’t guaranteed.
Results-Only: A results-only work environment (ROWE) is one where workers’ schedules are determined by work completed rather than hours worked.
Pros: Employers usually use deadlines and productivity goals to monitor ROWE workers, allowing employees get their work done wherever, whenever, and however they want. Assistant merchandiser Sophia Lufrano is in her office three or four days per week to participate in meetings. The rest of the time, she works from home, fitting in time for errands and appointments as needed.
Cons: There is a lot of temptation to mix work and life — maybe too much. “Sometimes, when you’re at home, there are distractions,” says Lufrano. “I tend to think that I can work, and then also do laundry at the same time. The next thing you know, you’re just doing laundry and not really working.” Sabatini Fraone says these blurred lines also mean that ROWEs require special management. She also says that many ROWE workers may need more than 40 hours per week to complete their workloads.