How the workday has evolved

What shapes the workday? Answer: Our understanding of productivity.

Our workday has evolved massively in the last 200 years, and, with new understandings of what makes for a productive worker, it could soon be time for the next step…

The evolving workday. Productivity has been at the centre of the work day for centuries. The opinion of what makes workers most productive has therefore been and continues to be one of the main determinants of the structure of our work day.

In the past, our understanding of productivity was grounded in the main industries of the period – agriculture and manufacturing. The main principle of productivity within these two industries is time i.e. maximum usable hours to produce the most profit. It is this principle that has thus far guided the structure of our workday for centuries.

As our understanding of productivity has evolved, so has our workday. In recent years, the benefit of good work-life balance has been researched and lauded the world over. Using Robert Owen’s 1817 slogan (that initially catalysed the shift in the work day of our 1900s ancestors), “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest!”, most employees work to roughly eight hours a day, five days a week. However, in a global survey conducted by EY, 46% of managers around the world were reported to work more than 40 hours a week. There are two major reasons for this: 1) that, a hangover from the past, hours worked is still valued by employers and 2) increased connectivity – through email, mobile phones, laptops etc – means that ‘work’ can reach you at any time, anywhere in the world and thus your work day extends to every time your phone rings or an email is read.

The future of the workday

Our understanding of the workday, specifically of how humans work within the work day, is now replacing the work-life-balance principle; attention is going to be the future of the work day structure.

Tammy Erickson, author and adjunct professor at London Business School last year published her “Five Rules for the Future” in Dialogue, explaining how our work day structure might soon revolve around tasks – that is, that we might work in a way similar to contractors and freelancers, working to fulfil our responsibilities on a project by project basis, as opposed to fulfilling an allotted time.

Erickson’s opinion is steeped in our research into attention: it is generally agreed that human beings are at their peak attention in 90 minute blocks, requiring 20-minute breaks between blocks. If project work were broken into tasks, each requiring 90 minutes, would we be tailoring our workdays to workers’ brains, enhancing productivity through flexibility? What about if employees could work based on how well they slept the previous night? Or if your computer could tell you your productivity had slowed, so it was time for a day off?

With workplace monitoring and our understanding of attention and the human mind, we might find our workday is ready for the next stage of evolution.

Flexibility is what the workforce wants: in the above mentioned EY survey of more than 9000 workers, more than two-thirds of respondents said they would consider quitting a job if not allowed to work flexibly. And, indeed, a flexible environment has never been easier to foster: increased connectivity, real-time coordination of global resources and a global workforce means that it’s only a matter of time before we are all able to work when we want, how we want, and where we want.

If you are interested in participating in a later discussion about your ideal workday, or the future of the work day, please write to our Assistant Editor ( or leave a comment below.