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OPERATIONS

How to Implement a Four-Day Workweek
 

A shortened workweek may boost employee motivation and productivity, but it can cause resentment or disrupt customers just as easily. Here's what you can do to minimize those risks.

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Two years ago, the state of Utah ordered 18,000 of its state employees to work four days a week, 10 hours a day, and to take Fridays off. More than three-quarters of employees reported a positive experience a year into this '4/10' program, according to a study by Brigham Young University management professors Rex Facer and Lori Wadsworth. They observed fewer sick days, reduced overtime costs, and savings on energy bills. Employees experienced fewer conflicts between work and family commitments, so their morale shot up. And they knew they only had four days instead of five to get their work done, so they became more productive.

Could this work for your business? It did for Emily Stoddard Furrow and Gretchen DeVault, co-owners of DVQ Studio, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based branding and communication strategy firm DeVault founded in 2006. "We wanted to make this a different kind of business, so we decided on the four-day workweek from the get-go," DeVault says. "We've all worked in places where you get burned out easily, so we wanted to make this a place where you enjoy coming to work." It's also a way for them to distinguish their company in hiring, because they can attach a value to the benefit of having three-day weekends.

An alternative work schedule isn't new. It was popular in the late 1970s, but hasn't quite caught on. About one-third of the businesses who adopted them during that period reverted back to their traditional schedules soon after, says Robert Bird, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut. Those firms faced a number of challenges. Just because your office is closed on Fridays doesn't mean your customers won't need your support five days a week. Working for ten hours a day isn't for everyone, either.

Still, a growing number of firms are following Utah's example and experimenting with alternative work schedules. Before you decide to implement one, make sure you've thought through the benefits and drawbacks. Have in mind a clear goal of what you want to accomplish by switching the days and hours your employees work. Do you want to save money on energy costs? Increase productivity? Make your employees happier? "It can work for certain companies, and certain employees, but there are a lot of risks involved, which are under-emphasized," Bird says.

Once you've decided to try out a four-day workweek, here's what you need to do to minimize those risks:


How to Implement a Four-Day Workweek: Solicit Employee Feedback

Even if you're sold on the potential benefits of the four-day workweek, your first step should be talking with your employees to see if they're willing to get on board too. "When most employees think of the four-day workweek, they tend to think of the leisure activities they could do on their day off, but managers need to talk about the ten-hour workday, and whether employees are willing to shoulder the costs that come with it," Bird says.

Working ten hours a day means less time for things like errands or doctors appointments, can make arranging child care more difficult, and often leaves employees drained. "It's usually not the 'let's go to the beach on Friday' result you hoped for," says Margaret DiBianca, a Delaware-based labor and employment attorney who counsels on employment practices. "You end up packing that day off full of things you need to catch up on."

If you can avoid adding more hours to the workday, do it. Jason Fried, founder and president of 37Signals, a web-based software development firm based in Chicago, Illinois, has a small staff of salaried employees. He started giving employees Fridays off in the summer of 2008, but instead of adding more hours to each day, his employees actually work less hours per week. "In terms of productivity, it seems like about the same amount of stuff is getting done, and people are happier and more focused," Fried says. "When you're shoving more hours into a shorter workweek, people are more burnt out and tired."

But if you need your employees to work forty hours a week, DiBianca suggests being as flexible as you can with how you schedule those hours. Give employees the option of coming in a few hours early if they tend to get more work done in the mornings, for example. A strict '4/10' plan like Utah adopted isn't the only strategy, either. Some companies have tried out a '9/80' plan, in which employees work eighty hours over nine business days, giving them an extra day off every two weeks.

You also need to consider the level of engagement required of the tasks your employees are performing. Don't schedule meetings with demanding clients or tasks that are precise or repetitive later in the day, when people will be more susceptible to fatigue or errors. And make sure your employees are taking breaks. "In a high pressure environment with a highly driven work force, you almost have to force people to take breaks," DiBianca says.

Dig Deeper: Flexible Work Arrangements


How to Implement a Four-Day Workweek: Consider Your Customers

One of the biggest questions for private firms is how to adopt a four-day workweek and not lose customers. Because your customers will need you five days a week, it's not realistic to shut down the office for an entire day. So, if your goal is to cut down on energy costs, you probably won't end up saving as much as you hoped. In Utah's case, they set a goal to save $3 million, but fell short, with around $500,000 in savings.

Establishing a rotating schedule, in which half your employees don't work Mondays and the other half don't work Fridays, for example, will allow you to meet your customers' demands. But first consider the role that each employee plays within the company. A rotating schedule can be challenging when managing long-term projects that require collaboration, as Furrow and DeVault of DVQ Studio found. At Fried's 37Signals, software programmers and designers, who frequently depend on each other, are on a standard schedule, but customer support and IT staff work a rotating schedule.

Dig Deeper: Creative Scheduling


How to Implement a Four-Day Workweek: Trial and Error

Changing the entire structure of the workweek isn't a decision to jump into. "Employers tend to rush into the four-day workweek as if it's some sort of panacea for productivity," Bird says. Because of the risks involved, start slowly, maybe with one four-day week a month, instead of making an immediate, sweeping policy change.

Your employees will be most affected by these changes, so it's crucial that you continually solicit their feedback, not just at the beginning of the trial phase, when they are more likely to respond positively because of the "novelty factor," according to Bird. Constantly communicate with them to find out what's working for them, and what isn't, and provide the necessary support to make those changes. Also, make sure to gauge how your customers are responding.

You also want to try to find some ways to monitor any changes in employee productivity to see if the alternative schedule is meeting your goals as a business owner. Try to find objective measures of productivity if you can, but this isn't always possible. "Assessing productivity is difficult," says Bird. "In some industries, like manufacturing, it's simple. But in the service industry, for example, it's more challenging."

Fried of 37signals has a different approach: "I don't really care how many hours you work. All I care about is if the work is getting done."

There are a lot of smaller details, like vacation pay and holidays, to consider before implementing the change. There are also legal issues: in California, for example, overtime pay starts after eight hours in a single day, so there are processes to go through to be able to implement a four-day workweek. Wage and hour laws forbid reducing hourly employee's number of worked hours per week. And if you're running a business with more than fifty employees, more employment laws begin to apply.

Dig Deeper: How Jason Fried Measures Productivity


How to Implement a Four-Day Workweek: Set the Right Tone

Perhaps the most important element in a four-day workweek initiative is the example that management sets. Particularly in an entrepreneurial work place environment, it's sometimes difficult for people to stop working on the fifth day. It's up to the managers to set the tone and make sure employees are comfortable not being held accountable for work on their day off. "The key is making sure that it's not expected of them, because if there's any ambiguity there, then people are going to work because they don't want to feel like they're slacking off," Fried says. "Let them know it's completely voluntary, and not mandatory [to work on their day off]."

Managers need to be on the same four-day schedule too, or their workload could dramatically increase, Facer says. It can be especially difficult for managers to reduce their number of hours worked, so it requires some creative scheduling. Make sure you can provide the staff resources to allow an employee on his day off to turn off his BlackBerry and forward customer inquires to other available staff.

DeVault and Furrow's four-day workweek initiative has proven successful in part to the work place environment they've created. "We're a small staff, and we're really flexible with things," Furrow says. "We  embrace it."

Dig Deeper: Changing Your Management Style


Resources

Legal issues to consider

Facer and Wadsworth's study of Utah state employees

Last updated: Apr 7, 2010




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