Photo: Janine Kunz

Five-hour working day – can it work?

"Nothing is forbidden, but we’ve all become sensitised to certain things"

Lasse Rheingans has a different take on work. In 2017, the managing director of a digital agency based in Bielefeld, Germany, brought in a five-hour working day for his employees – and left their salaries as they were. In an interview with Futurium’s online editor Ludmilla Ostermann, he talked about the benefits, but also the hurdles, he encountered along the way.

Photo: Janine Kunz

The current situation shows that neither time nor space needs to be a fixed factor in the modern working world: “We’ve been offering our employees the option to work from home for quite some time. As a digital company, we’ve adapted all systems in such a way that it doesn’t matter where our employees are working from,” says Rheingans when we contact him again about the new coronavirus regulations. Meetings, workshops, contact with clients: “Our interactions have become completely virtual.”

Why did you decide to introduce the five-hour working day in your company?

Lasse Rheingans: The decisions we make are determined by what we’ve experienced in the past. I started my own business in the media industry in 2001. The larger the company grew, the more stressful it became. At some point, I realised how difficult it is to reconcile work and family life if you’ve got even the most minimal desire to do a little something in your free time. When I was studying in Australia I used to go to the beach every day, sometimes to surf, sometimes just to stand around the barbecue, even though my course was demanding. I learned that work and leisure are compatible. Then my father died, friends died, and I just became aware of how finite life is. I decided to quit the agency and do something else. I no longer wanted to just run around chasing whatever and merely reacting to things. I read a lot on the subject of ‘New Work’. Then the opportunity arose to buy an existing agency and try something new.

Did everyone yell “Hooray” at the idea of a five-hour working day?

Rheingans: The initial reaction was uncertainty. Perhaps my employees thought I was just testing their willingness to work – and whoever cheered would be fired. One said, “Lasse, I can’t do this. I’m under a lot of pressure and I just don’t know how I can do anything more efficiently.” This person is still at the company, by the way. Until that point, he’d just been completely overwhelmed. Sure, you can work full steam ahead for twelve hours now and again, but it shouldn’t become the rule. I then hired another person to take some of his workload off him. That was the solution. It’s demanding to stay focused over the course of five hours. It requires a lot of discipline and commitment. There were people who didn’t feel up to it and left the company. One completely different sequel that resulted in departures arose from employees having more time for themselves: two of them got thinking about where they’d ended up professionally and where they still wanted to go. Both of them left the agency business and moved into the product business. I’m happy about this, because our working time model got them to realise that their potential was perhaps better deployed elsewhere. If I find my job stupid, my output’s going to be limited.

20 people are sitting in a meeting, and half of them are playing with their mobiles and often don’t know what exactly they’re doing there.

Lasse Rheingans

How do you save time?

Rheingans: In our virtual chat room we went back and forth exchanging lots of information until it became clear to us that if we’d just put our heads together for five minutes, we’d have saved an hour of chat. So we’ve created small corners where people can sit and talk, with whiteboards hanging everywhere so they can quickly draft or sketch something, and exchange ideas. This saves a lot of time. We’ve all experienced scenes where there are 20 people sitting in a meeting, and half of them are playing with their mobiles and often don’t know what exactly they’re doing there in the first place. To counter this, we introduced special rules for meetings. If the invitation to a meeting hasn’t been drawn up in keeping with these rules, it’ll be rejected. The invitation must contain an agenda, a goal, a location and a list of participants. And a meeting mustn’t last longer than 15 minutes. We try to minimise any kind of distraction during working hours. We keep our notification alarms switched off; ideally, we leave our mobile phones in our pockets; and we check our emails only twice a day. If I get distracted, so studies have shown, it can take me 15 minutes to get back to the same level of concentration I had before. Ultimately, it’s a cultural question, namely, how can we communicate efficiently with one another? At our company, nothing is forbidden, but we’ve all become sensitised to certain things. Recently, we started practising team yoga in order to be able to evaluate everyday work situations more consciously. It’s also a great team-building measure that everyone looks forward to.

That’s a good point. What happens to team culture if the time spent together is limited?

Rheingans: The American entrepreneur Stephan Aarstol ended up reversing the five-hour working day he’d implemented in his company on the grounds that employees’ emotional affiliations with the company had diminished. I can confirm this, in part, because occasions for small talk just don’t arise. In monitoring sessions we’ve established that we need more team events happening outside of these five hours. The team was ready to give it a try. If you’re passionate about your job and enjoy interacting with your colleagues, you simply go out for a beer or cook a meal together to exchange ideas. It’s also not as if we always shut up shop at 1 o’clock sharp. We’re making the most of this working time model by keeping it flexible and finding the most suitable adaptation for ourselves.

How often do you exceed the five-hour mark?

Rheingans: In 50 to 60 per cent of cases, we manage to stay within the five hours. In the last two and a half years, no one’s worked a 40-hour week here – the average was far below that. Though I have to exclude myself here, because I do interviews, just like this one, and I write books or give lectures. But that’s okay. I believe that personalities need to develop, and employees need to become aware of their strengths, so that the actual number of hours they work really becomes irrelevant.

Client satisfaction isn’t affected by the five-hour working day.

Lasse Rheingans

What about productivity in the 25-hour week?

Rheingans: How can productivity be measured in creative professions? There are days when a designer comes up with five perfect brand identities off the top of his head. And sometimes it takes him three weeks. And that’s okay too. Our clients are satisfied. We hardly have any clients leaving us. And if they do, it’s for other reasons. We gain a lot of clients and we hold on to them too. If there’s ever an emergency, the project managers receive a call on their mobiles. That happens very rarely. But if it does, everyone’s more than willing to step in at short notice. Which might not be the case if someone’s just worked a ten-to-twelve-hour day. If I enjoy working with and for a client, then he should always be able to reach me. For this reason, client satisfaction isn’t affected by the five-hour working day.

How applicable is the model to other industries?

Rheingans: When faced with this question, I always take it a little bit further and say that the entire working world, and every single job within it, is going through an incredibly testing time right now. All jobs that don’t require brains and humans are being replaced by AI, robotics and automation. Simply because, A, we can’t find the personnel, B, nobody wants to do that kind of work, or, C, it’s simply much cheaper and more error-free when machines take over certain tasks. I believe that we as humans are also able to do the work we currently do in less time. Each company has to find out for itself whether it can implement the five-hour model or another model. The five-hour working day is no ‘egg of Columbus’, so to speak, that brilliant idea that seems so simple after the fact. But what works in any case is to ask yourself the underlying questions of culture and attitude. How do I perceive the employee? The “boss-tells-employees-what-to-do” model is dull and incompetent. In the future, we won’t need to talk any more about working hours, but we’ll still have to ask ourselves how we can achieve the best possible results. Employees must be deployed according to their potential. For me, it’s about getting rid of the obsessions with status and the doctrines that stop this taking place.