The Eight Hour Day: The Management Shackle


Prior to the Industrial Revolution, workers worked in small groups predominantly in cottage industries and agriculture. The huge industrial plant, so typical of the 20th Century simply didn’t exist. In the year 2014, that reality raises some interesting questions.

Three Questions For 21st Century Managers

  • Would you allow a complete stranger  to dictate to you when your business would open and close each day?
  • Would you allow another stranger to determine how much you should pay employees regardless of their contribution to the success of your business?
  • Would you allow yet another stranger to command you to allow employees time off on full pay regardless of whether the quality of their work was worthy of such a reward?

A Fascinating Reality

In case you didn’t know, almost every business owner in every industrial nation on the planet allows this to occur. And the repercussions are felt across the world.

It all started with Eight Hour Day legislation. These laws imposed those shackles on your business, whether or not they suit you, your employees or your customers.

Maybe it’s about time they all broke free.

History Of The Eight Hour Day

Following the Industrial Revolution in Britain, industrial production in large factories transformed working life. Long hours and unregulated working conditions led to health and morale problems for workers. Exploitative child labour was common. Most people worked 6 days a week, 10 to 16 hours a day.

Various attempts were made to improve early conditions. By 1817, English reformist Robert Owen had coined the slogan, “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest.”

By the early 20th Century most industrial companies had legislated for the Eight Hour Day. It was fully accepted in industrial nations by the mid-1940′s.


The acceptance of the Eight Hour Day led to many other things

  • Common starting and finishing times
  • Common working conditions for all employees
  • Extra wages at penalty rates for work done outside common hours: we called these overtime payments
  • Large numbers of workers working at the same locations in fully mechanized factories
  • The rise of Trades Unions to represent workers so that they weren’t exploited by factory owners and that their workplaces were safe to work in
  • The emergence of a new type of employee called “manager” and “supervisor” to ensure that workers provided “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”
  • The working hours and conditions being applied to office and service workers as well as factory workers
  • The assumption that hours spent automatically led to work goals achieved. B264

Benefits Of The Eight Hour Day

  • Factory owners and managers could organize work and workers so that resources were used effectively
  • Better and safer working conditions for employees
  • Reasonable pay and proscribed holidays for all workers
  • Effective processes for resolving disputes between workers and factory managers
  • Opportunities for workers to be promoted to more responsible roles: prior to the Industrial Revolution, such opportunities didn’t exist. Workers in cottage industries, agriculture and the military stayed as “workers”. Overseeing roles such as supervisor or manager or officer were given to wealthy, privileged and titled people.
  • A “Labour Movement” became established and influential throughout the Western world. This hadn’t existed before. Workers could unite to oppose exploitation and abuse by managers.

The Value

At the time that the Eight Hour Day movement emerged, it was necessary. It achieved many positive outcomes for both workers and managers and those were generally widely accepted and adopted.

100 Years On

For all the good achieved through the Eight Hour Day and the development of the Labour Movement that accompanied it, it’s time to question whether it’s still appropriate.

Major Changes

We should ask ourselves

  • Would it be preferable for employees to start and finish work at times that suited them?
  • Do employees need to assemble in large numbers at the same place in order to get their jobs done?
  • Should we be more concerned with what results employees achieve and less concerned with the time spent achieving them?
  • Should we give employees more responsibility to achieve job results and measure their own performance?
  • Can we establish collaborative process  so that managers and employees can work effectively together to achieve job results without close supervision?
  • Should all employees doing similar work be paid the same regardless of the results they achieve?
  • Should working conditions be tailored to suit individual employee needs rather than a “one size fits all” approach?
  • Should individual employees be allowed to negotiate their own pay and conditions with management so that it suits both employee and management?
  • Should employees have the freedom to negotiate roles and goals with other employees  without management intervention?
  • Should employees be free to collaboratively review and improve systems   and processes to better achieve business results?
  • Should we spend more time and money showing employees how to manage themselves and their work rather than follow strict management direction?

There are many other useful questions to ask. Those above are just a start.

What’s Changed?

What tools does today’s manager or worker have at his or her disposal that weren’t available even 50 years ago, let alone in the early 20th Century?

Here’s an incomplete list: p.c., smart phones, tablets, internet; there’s also virtual instant access to vast information resources through the likes of Google; the capacity to interact with huge numbers of people through social media such as Twitter and Facebook.


This technology means that the worker no longer needs close supervision. Through the application of well-designed performance systems, the worker can tell “how well they’re doing” daily or weekly, if not hourly.

The worker can also check the performance of work colleagues and team members and communicate with them quickly without any face to face contact.

Through the technology, the worker can have instruction and training designed and available that meets their personal needs. They can tell what and how well they’ve learned and performed. They need neither textbook nor classroom. And they have immediate access to the people who designed the instructional technology they are using to sort out learning difficulties.

Payment and working conditions can be negotiated directly between worker and manager to meet the needs of both. In most cases, the intervention of Trade Unions on workers’ behalf is unnecessary. When workers need to vote or convene, the technology makes it simple and definite.

In Australia, a country with a very strong labour movement tradition, overall union membership is down to 18% of the total workforce and only 14% of workers in the private sector. Workers no longer see the need to be a member of a trades union. It’s generally accurate to say that trades unions, as we’ve known them, are an anachronisms in the 21st Century. The shape of the workforce has changed dramatically too. In Australia some 45% of private sector employees work in businesses with less than 20 employees: 70% work in businesses with less than 200 employees. The huge industrial plant with hundreds or even thousands of employees is no longer the common workplace.

Goodbye Eight Hour Day

The conditions that created the Eight Hour Day simply don’t exist except in rare instances. Even in large businesses, it’s now common for workers to be formed into smaller work units and for workers to be provided with considerable autonomy to run such units themselves.  The work of Ricardo Semler at Semco in Brazil is a notable example.

The Big Question

For how much longer are we going to continue to be beholden to a set of social conditions and technology that have already been irrelevant for at least 30 years or more?

It may please the academic gurus, trades union power brokers and a handful of tycoons. And some of them will fight to retain their influence regardless of the reality. But the workers have already spoken.


What are you going to do? Accept the reality of the 21st Century workplace or dig in your toes, stick with outmoded practices and hope you can survive by sticking with the processes designed for the 20th Century workplace? Is the Eight Hour Day still relevant?

What To Do Now

Check the links in the article for more information. Check the Resources tab in the blog. Please leave a comment below. And please contact me direct at  if you have a particular issue you want help with.


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