Where does our basic notion of a workday come from?

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
October 20, 2023
A graphic with a green background and black text that reads 'Why 9? Why 5?'

Turns out it’s evolved — quite a bit, actually. 

Rewind a couple hundred years to the Industrial Revolution. At the time, most employees performed manual work in factories, and only a very few people were in management. The workday for hired hands was often long and hard, and weekends were often limited to Sundays only (if you were lucky). 

The workweek could easily total a whopping 80+ hours. 😱 

The tools of the day were physical and mechanical, and workers had to be in proximity to a power source. Overhead belts driven by a central generator kept an entire enterprise in a single building, including management. By necessity, work was carried out in a specific location.

As a result, shifts were necessary to coordinate factory operations with production. There was little to no flexibility regarding when work happened. Workers were bound by rigid schedules, arriving punctually and departing only when the resounding whistle signaled the end of their shift.

Henry Ford popularized the 40-hour work week after he discovered through his research that working more than 40 hours yielded only a small increase in productivity. Ford announced he'd pay each worker $5 per eight-hour day, which was nearly double what the average auto worker was making at that time. Manufacturers and companies soon followed Henry Ford’s lead after seeing how this new policy boosted productivity and fostered loyalty and pride among Ford’s employees.

In 1938, the U.S. Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime to all employees who worked more than 44 hours a week. They amended the act two years later to reduce the work week to 40 hours, and in 1940 it became law. 

The rise of the knowledge worker

After WWI, a new trend began: The rise of white-collar workers, or jobs that required more administrative and clerical responsibilities than line assembly. Although tasks may have still been repetitive, they were much more cognitive vs. physical in nature. 

Then, in the middle of the 20th century, management thought leader Peter Drucker observed a new class of workers in modern corporations: the knowledge worker. People weren’t paid for their physical labor but for their thoughts and ideas. 

The typewriter dominates our image of early knowledge workers. Add computing to the mix, and the notion of remote work was possible. The term “telecommuting” was coined by Jack M. Nilles and his colleagues back in the early ‘70s. 

Along with flexibility around location, when work happened also changed. “Flex-time” emerged in the 1970s, allowing workers to pick a start and end time, usually overlapping core hours. The location of work and the time of work began to become more and more fluid. 

Change, accelerated

The pandemic, of course, brought on a global experiment in remote work — and for the most part, it worked. There’s no going back, really. 

Employees and employers alike have seen the benefits and must embrace a new approach. Don’t fall into the trap of 9am to 5pm, or even the 5-day workweek. There are different possibilities if we can only apply our collective imaginations. 

That’s why Nick Bloom, Stanford professor and leader in distributed work studies, recently declared the 5-day workweek “dead” in a New York Times piece. 

He writes: “Rarely as an economist do I see a change so profoundly positive for the majority of America’s businesses and workers…Remote work has been good for almost everyone involved. We should support this golden moment and lay the five-day-office-week movement to rest.”

Reimagining Hybrid Work

There’s a correlating relationship between where work happens and when: as location becomes less fixed, the time of work also becomes more flexible (often by necessity). Work can be said to be multimodal, ranging from in-person synchronous, to remote-asynchronous, to a mix of both and everything in between. The fluidity between modes, or the ability to shift workstyles and collaboration patterns, is the new normal of how work gets done.  

Against this backdrop, the phrase “hybrid work” is really a misnomer. It only focuses on location — whether an employee is in the office or not. Instead, throughout the history of work over the past two centuries, we see a connection between the where and the when of work. 

We prefer “flexible distributed workstyles” over “hybrid” for this reason, reflecting the causal relationship between the place of work and the time of work. 

Related: Hybrid work styles: the new common sense

It’s no surprise that concepts such as autonomy, work-life balance, and employee experience all emerge as important aspects of work. Hypercompetition in a global environment with access to entrepreneurial resources and capital requires organizations to creatively outthink their rivals, not just execute a given strategy. 

Escape Outdated Models of Work

So why are we stuck with models like the 9 to 5? Luckily, policies and trends are starting to shift even the hard-fast notion of the 40-hour workweek. 

And more recently, the 4-day workweek has been shown to be effective. Studies show it can increase both productivity and employee satisfaction at the same time. Of course, some countries have already adopted the 4-day workshop successfully, such as Belgium, with others trialing the model officially (e.g., UK, Portugal, and others). 

Related: 6 essential steps for building an async-first culture

There are even calls to allow for a 7-day workweek. This doesn't mean employees work eight hours a day seven days a week. Instead, it gives complete control over when to work throughout the week, even on the weekends. The overall aim is to provide better options for work-life balance for a range of individual preferences and situations. 

In a post-pandemic world, the where and the when of work are more independent than ever. Given the trends of the past and the momentous changes to work we’re experiencing right now, it’s really only a matter of time for ‌company policies as well as legislation to catch up. 

Mural's Professional Services program, New Ways of Working, is a three-workshop series designed to help your hybrid or remote team embrace asynchronous collaboration and revolutionize your work process. Whether you want to improve how your team communicates or find the right tools for the job, our friendly Professional Services team at Mural is here to help. We'll assess your current tools and guide you in creating clear guidelines through a team agreement.

Get in touch with our Professional Services team to learn more.


About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.

white x icon

Get the Free 2023 Collaboration Trends Report

Extraordinary teamwork isn't an accident

By continuing, I agree to receive news, offers, collaboration tips, and invitations to surveys, webinars and events from Mural and the event sponsors. I can unsubscribe at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Statement.
We are sorry, something went wrong while submitting the form. Please try again.