THE BLOG
09/16/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

How Do You Work Best?

Kyle Monk via Getty Images

When do you work best? Is it between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.? Or do you perhaps have the clearest head at 7 a.m. and trouble focusing in the afternoon? Is it only on Monday through Friday? Or do you sometimes struggle to think straight on Mondays, but have great ideas on Saturdays?

Where do you work best? Is it while sitting at the desk you've been assigned? Or would you be better suited to a different environment -- one that's quieter, or busier, or closer to home?

Has your employer ever asked you these questions?

My hunch is that for most workers across the country, the answer to this final question is no --because workplaces were not designed with these questions in mind.

Why We Work When We Do

Before the 1930s, there were no U.S. labor laws to protect employees from working indefinitely, every day of the week. Sundays were an observed day of rest (or day of church-going) for the predominantly Christian workforce, but otherwise rest was a luxury. It wasn't until 1908 that workers at a New England cotton mill had their first Saturday off as well, in order to accommodate the Jewish Sabbath. In 1926, Henry Ford helped make the two-day weekend more official when he began shutting his factories on Saturdays and Sundays.

But it took the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 to officially limit the workweek to 40 hours. In fact, the original draft of the FLSA put forward by Senator Hugo Black in 1932 actually targeted a 30-hour workweek, in order to distribute labor among the millions of Americans who had lost their jobs in the depression. But the dramatic difference between the limitless labor hours they had been entitled to and a seemingly-paltry 30 hours encountered too much resistance from employers at the time.

The concept of a 40-hour week actually dates 120 years earlier, to 1817 when British social reformer Robert Owen began campaigning for a workday limited to eight hours of labor, balanced by eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest. His cause was taken up more broadly in the U.S. by the Chicago labor movement in the 1860s and beyond. But it took until 1938 for the U.S. government to formally recognize change.

The FLSA doesn't prevent people from working more than 40 hours, but it does require certain workers to be paid at overtime rates for hours above and beyond 40. Since many employers don't want or can't afford to pay overtime, work hours have come to fall within a standard time frame of 9 a.m.-ish to 5 p.m.-ish, give or take.

In other words, the 40-hour, Monday-Friday, 9-5 work week wasn't designed for worker productivity, but for religious observance and worker protection.

Why We Work Where We Do

Some jobs require presence at a specific location for obvious reasons (food service, healthcare, performance art, manual labor, etc). But other jobs are done in a specific place (an "office") because it wasn't until relatively recently that there was a (low-cost, fast) way to communicate other than in person. And any machinery necessary for getting an office job done (from the telegraph to the copier) wasn't cheap enough or small enough or portable enough to be located anywhere other than in a fixed communal location.

Through the 1960s, open bullpen layouts predominated office spaces, but workers often found them loud and distracting with limited personal space. In 1964, designers from the Herman Miller firm launched a new office-design model with the intention of giving workers more privacy, room to work, and the flexibility to make quick and easy changes in desk height to adjust for different tasks: the Action Office was born.

But around the same time, a new middle management layer was emerging in the workforce. More employees and rising costs in real estate meant that employers were on the lookout for ways to cut costs. Tax law changed to stimulate business spending, and companies could recover costs quickly on office furniture through shortened depreciation time frames. Employers realized that the more Action Offices they could pack into a space, the more they could save. Design competitors took notice and created smaller, cheaper versions, and it wasn't long before the standard became what we are still commonly stuck with today, the dreaded office cubicle.

In other words, we don't work in offices because the environment maximizes productivity, but because for years we had no other choice. We don't work in cubicles because they are hotbeds of creativity, but because they are a well-intentioned design gone wrong.

What Comes Next

Just because we've been doing things a certain way for a while doesn't mean we should keep doing them that way. It doesn't make sense for us to work under rules set decades ago that no longer apply.

Technological advances in recent years have dramatically expanded the options available to employers and employees for supporting a mobile, flexible and global workforce. And perhaps more to the point, it behooves us as an economic powerhouse to invest time and energy into crafting a workforce that gets the most bang for its buck. That means it's high time for us to follow the research that shows, for example, that breaks in the workday are good for our concentration. That vacations make us better workers. That happiness makes us more productive. That flexibility makes for a more invested workforce.

Understanding why we work the way we do is the first step towards acknowledging that workplace change is not only possible, but warranted. Movements like 1 Million for Work Flexibility and Great Work Cultures are helping to redefine what it means to be a worker and an employer because the old definitions are just that: old. Tradition has its place, but if we want our businesses to foster innovation, creativity and productivity, then that place is not at work.

Emma Plumb is the director of 1 Million for Work Flexibility, the first national initiative to create a collective voice in support of work flexibility.