Working Hours Policies: Getting it Just Right

As we enter a new year, HR departments everywhere are reflecting on their business strategies and making new goals for 2017. We’re finding the balance between working harder and working smarter, and tailoring our working hours policies to match these goals. Like the story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it’s important to get your working hours policies just right. Demand too much of employees, and they will burn out. Make your policies too lenient, and productivity will suffer.

Opinions on what make working hours policies effective fall on a very wide spectrum. 2016 gave us examples at both extremes. In Japan, the CEO of an advertising company resigned after the country’s labor ministry found that excessive work pressure led to the suicide of a 24-year-old employee. In the month before she died, she had put in 109 hours of overtime. That adds up to more than two-and-a-half extra workweeks on the clock! In response, the company reduced the limit on overtime hours from 70 to 65, which is like turning the pressure cooker down from 10 to 9.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the California startup that established a five-hour workday for their employees. The move freed them to enjoy their afternoons pursuing active outdoor lifestyles, and came paired with five percent profit sharing. But it also included a stipulation: keep production up or be fired. This didn’t mean employees were prohibited from working 12-hour days when necessary, it just relieved the pressure for constant nine-to-five presence.

While this example ended in success, not everyone who questions the 40-hour work week experiences the same results. In Sweden, an experiment with six-hour workdays for nurses at a retirement center ended with the nurses feeling much happier and well rested. But the center needed to hire 12 extra nurses to keep up with demand, and keeping the same level of pay for everyone cost the equivalent of $1.3 million.

So how can you find the happy medium with your working hours policies? Consider the following three questions before making any decisions:

What are the time requirements for a position’s core responsibilities?

Examine the tasks, meetings, and requirements that make up your employees’ daily routines. Are they still effective? Are some of them relics from a previous time? A personal example: at a previous workplace, I’d attend a meeting where the stakeholders would print off creative briefs, pass them out, and read them verbatim. It took an hour or so to communicate information when the process could have been as simple as sharing a Google document and having a ten-minute discussion. Which leads to the next question:

Does the position require an employee’s physical presence?

It’s impossible for an auto mechanic or retail store clerk to telecommute, obviously. But until fairly recently, even people who worked mainly with information had to be physically present at an office, where the printer kept humming and teleconferencing involved fuzzy speakerphones with intermittent Internet connections.

If your marketing team is constantly moving between each others’ desks, bouncing ideas off each other, then it’s still important for team members to have time in the office together. For workers who can telecommute, it’s important to set up a balance between effective collaboration and the convenience of working from home.

Is your organization equipped to handle flexible hours or telecommuting?

This isn’t just about whether you have the resources for video conferencing and cloud-based document sharing, although that’s certainly a large part. An effective telecommuting strategy needs to have well-established asset storage and approval processes, along with a high level of organization and planning.

This level of organization requires invested employees. It’s hard to make last-minute changes if the project owner has already gone home for the day without telling the designer where to find the files she needs. But when the whole process is dialed in, it means that your employees spend less time waiting in their seat for the next crisis and more time improving your organization in their own sphere of influence.

So how do you get your working hours policies just right? By identifying the realities of your industry, communicating with your employees and managers, and making sure any traditional ideas still make sense for your modern workplace. Whether you keep a traditional workweek or decide on something new, this examination of how your employees spend their time will help you encourage them to invest in your mission, letting you shift your focus away from filling a quota of in-chair hours toward maximizing effective work.