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The 40-Hour Work Week: Should Your Employees Adopt an Alternative Schedule?

The 40-hour work week is familiar to everyone in the modern workforce—but that doesn’t mean it’s the best work schedule for your employees. What are the benefits and drawbacks of this standardized way of working, and what are the alternatives?

Keep reading this guide to learn about the origin of the 40-hour work week, examples of more flexible work schedules and how to decide what’s best for your company.

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What is a 40-hour work week?

A 40-hour work week is typically an 8-hour day, 5 days a week. This is often referred to as a 9-to-5, although the actual hours might differ from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

History of the 40-hour work week

Working conditions following the Industrial Revolution were so poor that many people were forced to work over 80 hours per week.

The government was first to enact a 40-hour work week standard in hopes that private companies would follow. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company decided to reduce its employees’ 48-hour work week to 40 hours to improve working conditions, but it was one of only a handful of large companies that did so. Henry Ford noted that productivity waned when workers were forced to work more demanding schedules.

In 1940, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. This was the beginning of the 40-hour work week law and established overtime pay for anyone working more than 40 hours a week.

From 1940 until recently, 40-hour work schedules have been the standard for all employers with full-time employees.

Is the 40-hour work week still relevant?

Employers across the world are experimenting with more flexible work schedules and allowing employees to find a better work-life balance. Whether these alternatives to the 40-hour work week are right for your business could depend on job responsibilities, the industry you’re in and the financial impact of implementing alternative schedules.

While some evidence suggests that more freedom and autonomy can increase productivity, there are downsides to deviating from a standardized schedule.

Pros and cons of a standardized schedule

Standardized schedules are becoming less popular due to European trends. Here’s what you need to know.


  • Helps employees maintain a routine: Employees who work 9 am-5 pm, Monday through Friday, know they have Saturday and Sunday off, allowing ample time to plan appointments and personal time around their schedule.
  • Promotes accountability: Your workers know they have to arrive at a certain time each day and finish their work by a certain time. Alternative schedules might cause employees to take a more relaxed approach to their responsibilities.
  • Establishes good communication: Having a set work schedule for your employees may help promote good communication within your workplace, as all team members will have access to one another. This simplifies teamwork and makes it far easier to collaborate or ask questions.


  • Unhealthy work-life balance: Employees may feel that the set days and hours they have to work limit the amount of time they have to spend with family or explore hobbies.
  • Lost productivity: Some studies suggest that being overworked is detrimental to employee health, concentration and mood. Healthy and happy workers are more focused and efficient.
  • Increased human error: Your team is more likely to make mistakes if they’re stressed about long hours at work.

Examples of flexible work arrangements and schedules

What if you want to try alternatives to the traditional work schedule? Here are some examples of flexible work schedules and work arrangements.


You can allow your employees more autonomy by letting them choose their hours. With flextime, employees are still required to work 8 hours a day and around 40 hours a week, but they get to choose their start and end time rather than working standard hours.

For example, your employees could start work between 7 am and 10 am and end between 3 pm and 6 pm.

For this to work, you need to establish core hours in which an employee must be at work. For example, your core hours could be 11 am-3 pm. Knowing that your entire work staff will be present during set hours makes it easier to schedule meetings, training and other administrative functions.

Related: What Flextime Is (and When It’s Right for Your Company)


Telecommuting is a flexible work arrangement where employees work from home for part of their work week and report to the office a few times a week. This is becoming more popular due to better videoconferencing technology and an increase in roles that don’t always require a physical presence. There are some job roles where telecommuting wouldn’t be realistic, such as manual labor jobs or health care.

Remote work

Working remotely is a popular trend because it lets people fulfill their job responsibilities while also having the flexibility to take care of family and personal appointments. Many customer service and sales positions are performed remotely because workers can install software on their computers that logs their time on task, progress and customer interactions.

The downside is that you may need to pay more for support services when things go wrong, and home internet outages can sideline your staff.

Related: Remote Work vs. Telecommuting – Differences, Benefits and Drawbacks


A 9/80 work schedule requires workers to work 9 days every biweekly pay period. They could work:

  • Five 9-hour days the first week and four 9-hour days the next
  • 4.5 days every week
  • Four 10-hour workdays a week, with an extra day off in exchange for logging an additional hour every day

This schedule gives employees a little more control over their time.

Annualized hours

An annualized hours arrangement combines a flextime schedule and a compressed 9/80 schedule. In this arrangement, employees negotiate the maximum number of hours they’ll work each year. It can allow people to trade working more hours at certain times to be able to take extra vacation time.

Pros and cons of alternative schedules

Some overseas employers have gone as far as to reduce work weeks to as few as 29 hours per week while still reporting productivity gains. Here’s what to consider:


  • Improves employee morale: Alternative work schedules may help boost employee morale and overall job satisfaction because employees can work in a way that fits their needs. For example, if you allow an employee with a long commute to telecommute 2-3 days a week, they might experience less stress and be more energetic when they work in the office.
  • More appealing to talented candidates: Modern trends have made alternative schedules more popular, so it may be useful in attracting and retaining talent that prefers this work style.
  • Promotes better productivity: For some employees, alternative schedules could enhance their productivity levels. Some employees may do their best work during morning hours. Those who prefer to sleep in could work a later shift.
  • Increases retention levels: Employee attrition rates are higher with a standardized schedule, possibly because workers gravitate toward remote work opportunities or other flexible schedules.


  • Limits your ability to interact with employees: If you allow employees to arrive later, earlier or work from home, it might be difficult to track their work progress or build strong professional relationships with them. You’ll have fewer chances to bond over in-person work.
  • Hinders workplace communication: Flexible work schedules might disrupt your company’s communication process. Sending out important information, getting signatures or arranging important office meetings might take more planning and time.

Related: 11 Tips to Effectively Manage Remote Employees

Offering your employees a flexible work schedule could increase their satisfaction with their roles and improve job performance. These gains may come at the cost of logistical and administrative challenges, and flexible schedules aren’t appropriate for every role.

As more employers implement alternative work schedules, you may need to follow suit to attract the right talent. However, before you decide what’s right for your business, take some time to weigh the benefits against the costs.

Frequently asked questions about the 40-hour workweek

Does it cost more to hire remote workers?

You could save money employing remote workers over in-house staff because you won’t need to pay for office space and on-premises equipment. However, there could be security risks associated with remote workers using personal equipment to store company data, so you may feel more comfortable buying laptops, tablets and phones exclusively for work.

On the plus side, the increased productivity and employee well-being that comes with remote working may offset these costs.

What job perks are commonly offered to employees with alternative schedules?

It’s possible to offer perks such as unlimited paid time off when workers have an annualized schedule. You can support your team’s physical and mental health with wellness programs, which they can access whatever their work schedule looks like. Of course, traditional benefits packages, including health insurance and retirement savings, can still benefit your employees on an alternative schedule.

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