When some city workers in Gothenburg, Sweden, switched to a six-hour workday–in a two-year experiment that recently ended–they were sick less often, more efficient, and happier. But the municipal retirement home that ran the experiment had to hire more nurses, and the extra cost meant that the shorter workday won’t become permanent.
Some small Swedish tech companies, on the other hand, say that a shift to a six-hour day can make business sense.
Brath, a Stockholm-based startup that decided to limit workdays to six hours when it launched in 2012, argues that a shorter day may have made the business more successful than it otherwise would have been–in part because the work-life balance can help them attract and keep the best employees, and in part because happier employees are more productive.
“Our staff gets time to rest and do things that make them happier in life,” says CEO Maria Brath. “For example, cook good food, spend time with family and friends, exercise. This, then, is profitable for the company, because the staff arrives at work happy and rested and ready to work.”
As in most jobs, employees there likely wouldn’t work for a full eight hours even if they were in the office longer. “Our work is a lot about problem solving and creativity, and we don’t think that can be done efficiently for more than six hours,” she says. “So we produce as much as–or maybe even more than–our competitors do in their eight-hour days.”
Filimundus, a Stockholm-based gaming company, switched to a six-hour workday in 2014, and saw different effects for different types of employees. “We did see some decrease in production for some staff, mostly our artists,” says CEO Linus Feldt. “But an increase in production for our programmers. So money-wise, in costs, it evened out. Profit remained. Positive effects increased.”
For the last six months, Filimundus has tested a seven-hour day, to see if it would have any impact on the productivity of artists. But they will likely go back to a six-hour day. “So far we have seen that the positive effects of a seven-hour day are close to none,” says Feldt. “It made a dramatically bigger impact to go from eight hours to six.”
Both CEOs believe that a six-hour day could work for any type of job. “I think it could work in any profession– there are just different ways one needs to adjust to it,” says Brath. “For example, instead of charging per hour, charge per service, and then work hard on making the work more ‘lean’ so that both the customer and the company can benefit. You cannot keep the same way of working if you change the hours–you have to work smarter.”
The retirement home in Gothenburg had to create a number of new nursing positions to cover the gap in hours, which increased costs by 22%. Ten percent was offset by the fact that some of the new nurses were coming off unemployment, so the government didn’t have to pay their benefits and also gained more in taxes.
While it may be harder to restructure the workday for nurses–or other jobs that require constant staffing–than for programmers and designers, Feldt thinks it can work. Besides, nurses, who arguably have more stressful jobs, may need the shorter hours even more.
“I think it is possible, even in the state-owned care, to implement a shift-driven business, where you have the possibility to hire more workers, thus sustaining those important taxes to the government–which is for some reason one of the most important factors in the calculation–and also be able to provide more care for the patients and offer work opportunities for more people,” he says.
“Of course, this is controversial for most businesses, since the current ideology for most business owners is to focus on maximizing the work output with the resources they already have,” Feldt says. “I think a lot of them would be happy to go back to having 10- to 12-hour days.”
Four smaller Swedish cities will begin similar experiments with shorter workdays for some municipal workers this year. Feldt hopes that more businesses and local governments follow.