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Coronavirus: Why we need to move away from 9-5 work patterns

Happy mature man relaxing on couch while video calling using laptop at home. Latin man sitting on sofa and making a video call. Smiling middle eastern businessman doing online video chat while gesturing with hands.
(Getty Images)

A few years ago, working from home was a luxury only a few select employees were afforded. But with the ongoing coronavirus outbreak preventing the majority of workers from heading to their offices, remote work is becoming the new normal - and is finally bringing an end to the traditional 9-5 working day.

The COVID-19 crisis has turned everything upside down, but the days of commuting to the office in the morning and clocking out at 5pm were already disappearing.

According to a poll of 1,800 workers carried out by YouGov, only six percent of employees are working the traditional hours of 9am to 5pm, and just 14 percent would opt for those hours if given the chance.

The eight-hour workday - or 40-hour week movement - began as a social movement to regulate the length of a working day to prevent the abuse of workers.

It had its origins in the Industrial Revolution in the UK, where employees in large factories would work obscenely long days - to the detriment of their health.

In the early 1800s, Welsh textile manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen began to push for a shorter day, coining the slogan: “Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest.” Over the next 100 years or so, countries in the industrialised world began to adopt the eight-hour working day as a way to improve the lives of workers. But is it really still relevant in today’s modern workforce?

READ MORE: Would working fewer hours tackle the climate crisis?

The nine-to-five working day is fast becoming obsolete for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is a growing appreciation and understanding among businesses that working smarter - not harder - is far more productive than presenteeism. Put simply, forcing employees to sit at their desks in an airless office for the sake of it is pointless - and benefits neither employer nor employee.

Instead, allowing employees to work in conditions that suit them means they’re more likely to get more work done. Feeling comfortable and working in an environment that suits you can increase productivity.

According to a survey by Canada Life, people who work from home rank their productivity as 7.7 out of 10, compared with 6.5 for office workers.

In today’s creative economy, how many hours we work each day is far less important. Instead, it’s better to focus on output - how much we are getting done, no matter how long it takes.

There is a wealth of evidence that suggests that working a more intensive, shorter day is far more productive than the traditional eight-hour day. Although we might sit at our desks for eight hours, we are unlikely to be working for a solid eight hours. In fact, research has shown that the average time we spend working is two hours and 53 minutes each day.

Some firms have trialled five-hour working days that have boosted both employee happiness and profits. “Three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives,” says Cal Newport, best-selling author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

READ MORE: Four essential apps for self-employed people and freelancers

The rising gig economy has also played a significant part in bringing an end to the nine-to-five day. An increasing number of people are shunning traditional “in office” jobs for self-employment, which allows them to choose their own hours. The number of self-employed workers has increased to more than 4.8m from 3.3m in 2001, according to the ONS, and self-employed people now account for more than 15 percent of the UK’s working population.

Thanks to advances in technology and telecommuting, it’s now easier than ever to work from home. And a shift in attitudes towards work means that many people prioritise work-life balance and the ability to work flexibly.

And as the workplace is increasingly populated by people who are self-employed or work freelance, it will become even more difficult for businesses contracting them to impose a traditional nine-to-five day. Over time, then, the focus will be more on the work being done - rather than how long a worker is spending in an office.

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic