Working 9-5? Blame Philip II of Spain!

Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the world of work. Lockdowns and other restrictions have forced millions of people around the world to work from home. This has been a challenge for many organisations who have traditionally expected their employees to be present in the office for a set number of hours every day.

The concept of a 9-5 workday has permeated across the world and although many of us work longer hours, it is considered a universal norm. Dolly Parton famously sang about working 9-5 (although I may be showing my age). But where did the concept of sitting at your desk for a set amount of time come from?  It turns out we have the unlikely combination of Philip II of Spain, the industrial revolution, and 1950s lawyers to thank.

Clearly ahead of his time, Philip II of Spain issued an edict in 1593 establishing an eight-hour workday aimed at improving the health of workers. But it took the rest of the world a little while to catch up, and it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that the idea of protecting workers really took root. In the nineteenth century, workers including children, laboured for up to 16 hours a day, six days a week in factories. The UK Government passed the Factory Act in 1833 which made it illegal for children under the age of nine to work and for children of 9-13 to work no more than nine hours. Sadly there are still people around the world, including children, who are not protected from exploitation.

Famously, it was the Ford Motor Company that introduced the 9-5 workday in 1926, along with reducing the working week to five days. Henry Ford wasn’t entirely altruistic, he expected it to improve productivity, as well as providing people with more leisure time to spend their money, invigorating the economy and improving his sales.

The eight-hour workday was a revolution for factory workers, providing them with reasonable working conditions. It was, and mostly still is, vital that employees be present at the same time in the same location for a production line to work. But how did this translate across from the factory to the office environment? We can thank the American Bar Association for the concept of paying people based on hours. A 1958 article entitled, “The 1958 Lawyer and His 1938 Dollar”, suggested that lawyers’ salaries were falling behind doctors and that the solution was to emulate the manufacturing industry and sell their services in units of time. This time-is-money approach quickly caught on across other industries, and so we have been locked into the idea of a 9-5 office workday based on business decisions made well over half a century ago.

The world of work has changed since then, most obviously with the advent of technology that allows us to collaborate with colleagues across the world anytime and anywhere. Covid-19 has accelerated the move to remote working dramatically and unexpectedly. If there are any positives that have come out of the pandemic, it’s the realisation that employees will work responsibly without direct supervision and that delivering quality work is far more important than sitting at a desk for a specific number of hours. Of course, working together in an office is not obsolete, meeting in-person with our teams and colleagues is vital to build relationships and effective teams. However, as we emerge from the pandemic, employees will expect their organisations to move to a combination of office work, flexible working, and working from home.

While Ford may have reasonably expected his staff to be loyal to his company for life, the average tenure of employees in a role is now less than five years. Those organisations that don’t adapt to changing employee expectations will find themselves looking for new staff sooner rather than later.

If you would like to explore your post-Covid-19 Employee Experience, please email us.

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