Working From Home: History That Repeats Itself

Patricea Pop

9 minutes read

Our 5-day workweek, the daily commute, and 9-5 jobs might be a thing of the past for some of us. With more and more employees complaining about burnout, the 4-day week seems to be the next step for some of the organizations out there.

If we were to look more closely at the evolution of the workday and workweek, we would find out that not too long ago people were working 6 to 7 days a week. Moreover, having a weekend all to yourself was a luxury.

The reasons for reducing the length of the workday or the workweek have changed throughout time, and context largely influenced this shift. Such a move frequently impacted many other aspects such as the level of unemployment, individual well-being, as well as productivity.

Shortening the workday was initially intended to boost employee earnings, create jobs, and reduce unemployment. In time, other concerns took precedence: long hours turned out to be unproductive and even harmful so the trend was to give workers more time for themselves.

Let’s have a look at some of the major events shaping the length and duration of our workday:

Industrial Revolution: from home and villages to factories and offices and the 9-5 jobs

Leaving home for the office and working 9-5 is said to have its roots in the Industrial Revolution, which took workers away from their homes and villages into factories.

Factory owners were reluctant to leave their machinery idle, so working extraordinarily long hours became the norm during this period, with many people putting in more than 12 hours per day, 6 days a week. 

Ford’s 5-day workweek boosted productivity and consumption

A six-day workweek was typical up until 1900, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

With no changes to employee pay, Ford became one of the first firms to embrace a 5-day workweek in 1926, and many other businesses soon followed. In addition to higher production, the outcome had an effect on the economy. Employees kept money in the economy by spending their free time shopping at stores. Ford learned that some of his finest clients were his own staff, which was one of the reasons he made this decision. He realized that his staff needed more time to drive and appreciate their cars if he wanted to sell more of them.

Shorter workweek, an instrument to reduce unemployment

During the severe years of the Great Depression (1930), many corporations opted for shorter work weeks as a strategy to reduce unemployment. For example, cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s adopted the 6-hour day during that period and many other corporations preferred shorter workweeks to lay off its employees.

The 8-hour workday

It is said that the 8-hour workday has its origins in the 19th century when Welsh textile mill owner  Robert Owen called for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest” for workers. In the US, the first step in implementing the 8-hour day was in 1938, when the threshold set by law was 44 hours/week. Two years later, the 40-day workweek law was passed and the 8-hour workday became the official and legal norm.

Waking up on Monday Morning in Britan’s 19th Century

If you think blue Mondays are a thing that our generation invented, think again. Not turning up for work on Mondays became a bit of a tradition for some workers in Britain in the 19th century. After taking advantage of the Sundays, when they were not expected to work, many lived life to the fullest and often skipped work on Monday mornings.

Having One Day of Rest for Religious Reason 

Having a day off during the week is a result of different religious traditions: Christians observed a day of rest on Sunday, Jews a day of rest on Saturday, and Muslims did so on Friday. At the same time, religious organizations asserted that a Saturday off would enhance the “mental and moral culture” of the working class while labor organizations pushed for a full day of work on Monday in exchange for keeping Saturday afternoons free for recreation.

Employers welcomed the 48-hour weekend since it resulted in lower absenteeism, and higher productivity, and it created a market for the leisure industry.

The way we are currently working was not deliberately designed but merely evolved according to the prevailing circumstances. Whether it was a deep financial and economic crisis or the fact that many workers were complaining of long hours and miserable working conditions, changing the schedules and the way people worked never “just happened”. 

Long hours, bad working conditions, and burnout still make headlines even in today’s workplace with many employees wishing for a shorter workweek and a much more flexible schedule. While some organizations are willing to embrace these needs and are cutting down on the hours and workdays, many continue to stick to the common norm. Whether this is a smart strategy or not, remains to be seen. One thing is sure though: the working style, as we know it, is evolving and many employees are looking for “something else”. 

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Written by Patricea Pop


It is said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a simple step and mine started a few summers ago when I wanted to do something for myself, so I enrolled in a coaching programme. This gave me the chance to look at myself from a different perspective: little did I know that it would take me to a different career path, that of being a coach.

After more than 12 years in the corporate world which taught me many lessons and several years of preparation for my new role, I now support people in business to improve their self leadership skills. I think leadership is an inside job and it is part soul searching, part strategy and part relationship skills.

I love writing about work and organizations because it is the place where we invest heavily our time and energy and we often end up feeling stressed, trapped and dissatisfied. My strength relies on my resilience, critical thinking and intuition and I believe it is an honour to accompany someone on their inner journey.

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