Firms squeeze the workweek

The rise of four-day weeks promises energy savings and more productivity, but only in some cases.

Scott Wallace

Ask Roberta Chinsky Matuson about compressing the workweek into four 10-hour days and her response is enthusiastic. "I would rather work four days than five," says Ms. Matuson, who once spent nearly nine months on a compressed schedule as a human resource director in Massachusetts.

Julie Lenzer Kirk, who has also worked a compressed week and has approved it for employees, offers another perspective. "When they're done right they can work well, but if they're not managed correctly they can be tough on the business," she says. "It can be more of a hassle than a blessing."

Their comments reflect the divergent viewpoints employees and employers hold as more companies adopt, or at least consider, alternative schedules. By squeezing five eight-hour days into four 10-hour days, workers save one day of commuting – a growing consideration as gas prices have soared.

"Employers are doing it because it's in their own best interests," says Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions in Northampton, Mass. "If they can help employees reduce costs and they're not losing productivity, then why not?"

The 2008 National Study of Employers, released by the Families and Work Institute, finds that 38 percent of US firms allow a compressed workweek for some employees. Only 8 percent permit it for all or most employees.

This summer, Utah became the first state to institute a mandatory four-day week for most state workers. The change affects 17,000 employees, about 80 percent of the state workforce.

"There is a huge emotional and green desire to move to a four-day week," says Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer at Adecco, a human resources firm in Melville, N.Y. "It sounds opportunistic for people's lives, saving on gas and being home with the family more. But the implications for both employers and employees are very great and not to be underestimated."

On the plus side, a compressed workweek can improve morale and company loyalty for those who like the schedule. "Every weekend is a three-day weekend for employees," says Kevin Shaughnessy, an employment attorney at Baker Hostetler in Orlando. "It provides more flexibility."

Not everyone gets a three-day weekend

In January Alix Rizzolo, a vice president at Pitney Bowes in Stamford, Conn., offered a compressed week to 10 percent of her staff. The arrangement has worked "exceptionally well," she says. "It really improved the individuals' engagement. Those who are on a compressed workweek are more productive. They're more conscious of the time they have available and have more structure in how they plan their week. It's also let me better support multiple time zones."

Not all positions are eligible. "It's not going to work for everybody," Ms. Rizzolo says. "Sometimes an employee could choose to be taken off, or we might do it if a performance issue cropped up."

Fatigue can also be an issue. "Employees need to consider their own stamina," says Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute in New York. "Working 4/10 can be very tiring."

Ms. Kirk, CEO of Path Forward International, workplace consultants in Damascus, Md., says that when she once did it, "There were some days that seemed to drag on. The busier you are, the better."

Matuson offers another suggestion for those who work long days Monday through Thursday: "I wouldn't schedule important strategic meetings for Thursday at 2. It's better earlier in the week when people have more energy."

Some employers find that productivity suffers. "It's difficult to be productive for 10 hours a day," Ms. Kenny says. "The physical toll of working a 10-hour day has really not been looked at. And I don't know if there are energy savings if a company keeps air conditioning on many more hours a day and lowers it on Friday."

Because most firms must stay open five days a week, not everyone can work four days. "Some people have to be turned down," Mr. Shaughnessy says. "You have to be sure you have clear standards to allow people to do this – stating that they have to be with the company for a year, for example, or that it only applies to certain people in certain levels or departments."

Any changes in work schedules and manufacturing schedules also need to be evaluated from a legal standpoint, he adds. Although the federal Fair Labor Standards Act only requires overtime after 40 hours of work in seven days, some states require overtime pay after eight hours in a day. Different states also have different laws about break times, lunch, and what is required for 10-hour days, Matuson says.

Employees must also weigh the impact of the longer day on their families. "Flexibility needs to work for the employer and employee, but it also needs to work for the family," says Ms. Galinsky.

Compressed schedules raise questions: If one parent works late, what happens to the family dinner? And what about child care? "At a lot of daycare centers, you have to pay even if you're not using Friday," Kirk says.

Compressed weeks rooted in the '70s

This is not the first time businesses have altered schedules to deal with a gas crisis. When Chris Stiehl worked as an industrial engineer for a large pharmaceutical company during the energy crunch in the 1970s, the firm adopted a four-day, 10-hour week.

"For people with lots of hobbies and activities, it was great," says Mr. Stiehl of San Diego, now a consultant on workplace and customer issues. "But some workers were bored and spent the extra time drinking at a bar or in front of the TV. We also experienced an uptick in accidents late in the day on the 10-hour days. People were tired and less careful. Worker's compensation claims increased." When the gas crisis waned, the company returned to a five-day week.

Today, Galinsky says, "Most companies starting this are saying this is a pilot. They need to figure out how to measure if it's successful." Some firms do this by verifying that workers meet deadlines and complete projects on time.

Organizations must proceed with caution, Kenny says, perhaps testing the plan and being clear with staff that it does not suit all jobs. "You start with the work that needs to be done," she says. "What is going to make the company successful? You cannot start with the employee's desire. The four-day week is not the silver bullet for the energy crisis."

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