The 4-Day Workweek

Why Your Business Probably Isn’t Ready for the 4-Day Workweek

Nov30
The Internet is full of blog posts and editorials suggesting that companies are ready for the four-day workweek. But are we?

Consider Utah. In 2008, Utah became the first state to mandate a 4-day workweek for its employees. The move was made to save money on energy costs in a tough economy, but state leaders discovered some unforeseen benefits. Though apprehensive at first, a year after the change was implemented, some 70 percent of workers said they preferred the four-day schedule. Time off was down 9 percent, and paid overtime was down too.

Despite the Utah program’s popularity with employees, it was ended in 2011 because the energy savings it was supposed to generate failed to materialize.

A long time ago, I used to work in an office that experimented in offering its employees a four-day workweek, perhaps inspired by Utah. It was a state government office already top heavy and needlessly bureaucratic, but the director was trying to foster a more innovative culture, so 4-day workweeks were seen as a perk that might improve morale without harming productivity. Employees simply had to work four 10-hour days, and they had the fifth day off.

Unfortunately, the experiment was a bit of a mess. Most people didn’t have enough to do during an eight hour shift, so filling 10 hours with productivity was almost impossible. Instead, it became a “goof off on the Internet” free-for-all during the hours that the 4-day workweek people were in the office unsupervised. (And it may have been a fatal flaw in the plan to not require at least one management-level employee to also participate in the compressed workweek schedule.)

Once the IT folks reported the spike in digital horseplay to the brass, the program was quickly shut down and folks went back to working a five-day week. But this was one office filled with some fairly unmotivated employees. What happens when the perk is offered to functional workers?

Compressed workweeks seems to be most popular and successful among software startups like Slingshot SEO and 37 Signals — companies with a tendency to require marathon coding sessions anyway, and within a sector whose culture has always included more perks in order to foster the innovation required to get tech companies off the ground.

There are other benefits to a compressed workweek. Having a non-weekend day free means that employees can get their doctor’s appointments and errands out of the way without needing to take additional time off. According to the Captivate Network’s recent Homing From Work survey of 4,000 white collar workers, 45 percent leave work for doctor and dentist appointments and 52 percent go out to buy gifts, greeting cards and flowers. There’s been a 31 percent increase in running errands since 2011, the study says.

A four-day workweek also means employees can cut their commuting time and expenses by 20 percent. In addition, a compressed workweek can give employees the time to pursue their hobbies or entrepreneurial interests, giving them less of a reason to try to sneak those activities during the workday.

Despite those advantages, most employers remain opposed to the four-day workweek. After all, if the boss is choosing who to promote based on their tendency to show up early and leave late, a four-day workweek is going to make that judgment impossible. That in itself may not be a bad thing, as we argue the value of shifting the conversation to one about the value you provide during the hours you work, versus the notion that working longer creates more value.  Beyond that, companies often don’t feel like they get enough out of the arrangement to justify it.

Another side of the coin is how to effectively bridge the gap between different generations at work. An older worker may be happy with the 5-day workweek, whereas a younger worker may be more inclined to work longer hours for a 3-day weekend. If part of your workforce is waiting for a deliverable from someone who’s out on Fridays, that may cause backups and bottlenecks that can create tensions. It’s important to understand the dynamics between your workforce as you consider the 4-day workweek.

It seems, for now, that the majority of companies in the U.S. aren’t quite ready for it.