5 Steps for Adopting a Four-Day Workweek

Consider wage and hour issues, effects on customers

By Lin Grensing-Pophal February 14, 2020
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compressed workweek calendar

Four-day workweeks allow employees to enjoy long weekends or a day off midweek, but often only if they're willing to put in extra hours during their days on the job.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) 2019 Employee Benefits survey of 2,763 HR specialists:

  • Four-day workweeks of a full 40 hours are now offered by 32 percent of U.S. employers to all employees for all or part of the year. While the business remains open for a normal workweek, employees have greater flexibility over their work schedules.
  • Four-day workweeks of 32 hours or less are offered by 15 percent of employers, giving employees an option that's closer to part-time work.

Shorter workweeks give employees more time to pursue personal interests. They can also raise workers' productivity during the days they work. But there are some downsides: Customers may have to wait longer for service or find they can't speak with the employee they're used to working with. Overall, though, many companies are willing to deal with such issues when compressed workweeks result in a more engaged workforce.

Here are five crucial steps for putting a four-day workweek in place.

Step 1: Clarify what you mean by a four-day workweek and what you hope to achieve.

Different organizations handle this differently. Some simply lop off one day of the week and pay hourly employees for a full 40 hours even though they will be working only 32 hours. Others lop off a day but extend the other four days so the work time still equals 40 hours. As SHRM found, more employers choose to offer the compressed 40-hour workweek versus the 32-hour workweek.

It's important to be clear at the outset what your intention is and to clarify exactly what you hope to achieve, said Jennifer Donnelly, senior vice president for the organizational effectiveness practice at HR consultancy Segal. "An upfront assessment on the benefits, potential drawbacks, impact to operations and overall cost are critical," she said.

But don't try to come up with all of the answers yourself, cautions entrepreneur Andrew Barnes, author of The 4 Day Week: How the Flexible Work Revolution Can Increase Productivity, Profitability and Wellbeing, and Create a Sustainable Future (Piatkus, 2020). Barnes is the founder of Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company that switched its 240 staff from a five-day to a four-day week in 2018 while maintaining their pay.

Clarifying the organization's goals, he said, should include input from employees about what they are expecting to get out of a four-day week.

Leaders tend to want to step in and come up with all of the solutions, he noted, but, in fact, HR and leaders need to "get out of the way." Instead, let employees take the lead in determining how they will work differently to get their jobs done in a four-day week.

"You have to have the confidence to let your team come up with the solutions. That is absolutely critical," he advised.

Once you've clearly identified specific goals and objectives, determine how you will measure the effectiveness of the effort. What specific metrics will you monitor? "What I do is quite simple," Barnes said. "I look at my revenue, my profitability, my profit per employee, my net promoter score and feedback from customer service."

It's a high-level view, he said, but it's relevant. "At a very base level, I'm delivering the same service standards and I'm enjoying high levels of productivity."

Step 2: Consider the potential impact on your customers.

There are two critical areas that must not be negatively impacted by the move to a four-day workweek, Barnes said: productivity and customer service. "If you can't have that, the whole project probably won't work. You've got to have that open discussion when you start the four-day week."

Deciding whether you are going to close your operation entirely for the fifth day or stagger individual work schedules within the organization's five-day business schedule is a significant question that has potential implications for managing operations and effectively serving customers. "Customer impact and expectations in particular should be carefully considered," Donnelly noted.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]

Step 3: Consider policy and wage and hour issues.

Don't forget about state overtime laws, advised Michael Cardman, legal editor with XpertHR, a Web-based HR law and compliance resource. "Several states—including every HR professional's favorite, California—require overtime pay not just for hours beyond 40 in a workweek but also beyond a daily threshold, which is usually eight hours but sometimes 10 or 12."

In creating the four-day workweek, HR will be instrumental in helping to determine exactly how this will work.

"As is the case with any flexible work arrangement, clear guidelines and parameters on how the program will work need to be established," Donnelly said. "This should include who qualifies for the modified schedule and the steps for putting the schedule into place."

Policies, she said, should also account for any potential effects on leave, time off and overtime, with details on how those components will be administered and managed. Policies should also address any impact or changes to benefits eligibility that may result.

Also consider the impact on part-time staff, Donnelly advised. How will these workers be affected by a four-day workweek?

"There may also be additional complexities and risk associated with managing leaves" under the Family and Medical Leave Act, she warned, and "extended workdays may have implications on accommodations" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another issue to consider: Companies with collective bargaining environments may be limited in how they're able to redefine the workweek. "Any substantial change to the workday or workweek should be done in partnership or consultation with unions," Donnelly said.

"Organizations may also want to build flexibility into policies and define the conditions under which an individual employee may need to change this schedule to accommodate operational demands, peak business periods or customer needs," she advised.

Step 4: Don't overlook the importance of communication and training.

A move to a four-day workweek, Barnes said, has to come as a policy statement from the top of the organization, ideally the company's senior leader. This statement should be tied to the results that the company wishes to achieve.

Think about what both managers and employees need to know to make this new schedule work, Donnelly said. "With any flexible work arrangement, it is key to educate and train managers, and the broader workforce, on how to adapt."

Education should include all of the various components, rules and processes involved in the program, she added. "Depending on your culture, managers may also need broader education on managing performance in a flexible work environment."

Step 5: Try out the concept before implementing it fully.

The final step—a trial implementation—is an opportunity to see how the shift will work, Barnes said. The company has an opportunity to evaluate the effects on productivity, and employees can see how successful they are in shifting their work to fewer days.

"What we see, and what companies around the world all see, is that people eliminate unproductive time and unproductive activities," Barnes said. Through the process, he noted, employers are presenting employees "with a challenge, an opportunity and a benefit. The trial is the thing that teases out whether this is possible or not."

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

Related SHRM Article:

Data Will Drive CEO Decisions on Four-Day Workweeks, HR Magazine, Spring 2020

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