Is a Four-Day Workweek the Answer?

By Steve Bates Sep 25, 2015
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Is a four-day workweek the answer for your organization? It depends on the question.

If the question is: How can we boost efficiency and still allow three-day weekends?, this might be an option. But if the question is: How can we give employees more choices to manage their careers and personal lives?, then not so much, say HR experts.

The question is not rhetorical for retailer Uniqlo, regarding its almost 10,000 Japanese in-store employees. News reports say the workers will have the option of working four 10-hour days. One catch is that they will have to work weekends to cover peak business periods. A spokeswoman for Uniqlo did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.

With this type of schedule, “There may be some savings. There may be a productivity gain,” said Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director of management consulting firm Towers Watson. “They may come back from their three-day weekend [which will actually occur during the weekdays] a little more energized.”

Differentiating between Uniqlo’s retail employees and workers in the knowledge economy, Jesuthasan said that there’s been a shift from an emphasis on punching a time clock to focusing on the work that gets done. Studies have shown that “there are better ways of motivating people and engaging them,” he said.

When considering a four-day, 10-hour schedule, “The real question is: What is the purpose of the whole discussion?” asked Daniel S. Hamermesh, professor emeritus in economics at the University of Texas at Austin. “Is it cutting costs? Is it having more leisure? There are much easier ways to accomplish these results.” For example, he said, an organization can mandate more vacation time. He cautioned that four-day weeks require good coordination between managers and staff, and added that “people get bored” by the tenth hour of a workday and productivity can suffer.

Working 40 hours in four days, also known as a compressed workweek, is not new. Nor is working four eight-hour days; such arrangements are popular among some employees who are caring for children or elderly parents or are pursuing their education while working.

Hamermesh emphasized that companies with 32-hour workweeks should expect a decline in results. “You don’t get something for nothing.”

Many HR experts advocate a range of flexible work options—including being flexible about where work gets done, as well as the number of hours that are put in—to attract and retain top talent and to boost engagement and productivity.

“Employees don’t want a four-day workweek,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of research for the New York City-based nonprofit Families and Work Institute. “They want flexibility. They don’t want to have to look their kid in the eye and say: ‘I can’t go to your ballgame’ ” because of their work schedule.

Schedule and compensation decisions must comply with state and federal laws and rules regarding overtime and holiday pay. For example, if an employee normally works Tuesday through Friday, he or she might be given an additional day off in a week with a Monday paid holiday.

“Think about these policies and your business model as a coherent structure,” advised Matos. “Use a pilot with a small group to figure out where the bumps are … . Don’t assume that anything you do is set in stone.”

Some organizations have tried four-day workweeks and abandoned them. Others have stuck with them, though some have done so with a twist.

In 2000, Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of the LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing firm, was just getting started and was looking for something that none of his competitors could match. He implemented a four-day, 10-hour workweek. Gimbel said that even though employees liked the schedule, he had to abandon it after about nine months.

By working four days, “People are missing out on 20 percent of the business interaction in the week. And it’s hard to promote people when they have less face time,” he said. “Philosophically, I don’t hate the idea. It might work if you have a business where you can withstand not being able to answer a question the same day” for a client or customer.

Andrew Schwartz, co-founder and managing partner of accounting firm Schwartz & Schwartz in Woburn, Mass., has a different take. During tax season—December through April—his accountants work six days a week: three 12-hour days and three eight-hour days. During the rest of the year, they work four eight-hour days. The system has functioned well for many years, he said, though it takes adjustments to get work done in the 32-hour weeks. The secret to making such schedules effective is to “figure out if the work can get done in the hours scheduled, don’t have people work hours they’re not supposed to work and stick to the plan.”

Audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG and tax services firm Ryan have embraced flexible work options and show no sign of retreating.

For KPMG professionals scattered across the U.S., employee schedules are determined in discussions involving each employee, the manager and the client that the employee serves, said Barbara Wankoff, executive director of diversity and inclusion. Some employees are paid for 32 hours of work per week. Some are paid for 40 hours. “Nobody punches a clock,” she said. “This has been part of our culture for a long time.”

Flexible scheduling drives high scores on employee engagement surveys—and the perception that KPMG is a great place to work, said Wankoff. “Sometimes it’s the difference between somebody staying or leaving the firm.”

Delta A. Emerson, Ryan’s president of global shared services, reports similar results. Requiring everyone to work four 10-hour days would be “like a round peg in a square hole,” she said. At Ryan, “You’ll find some four-day workweeks. You may find some three-day workweeks.” But they are all schedules that individual employees have chosen in consultation with their managers, who get training on how to make flexible work effective.

Emerson said there was a time when the company emphasized face time and punching a clock. “We did a 180,” moving to “work/life integration,” she said. “This has had an impact on our ROI [return on investment]. We aren’t doing this in order to be soft and fuzzy and make people feel good.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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