Secrets to Success

This story accompanies The Short Timers.

Monday, February 1, 2010
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So you're thinking of implementing a four-day workweek at your organization? Make sure you get employee buy-in first, says Cambridge, Mass.-based consultant Riva Poor, adding that she's observed several companies institute the 4-10 schedule without consulting their employees.

"It didn't last," says Poor, who authored one of the seminal books on compressed schedules -- 4 Days, 40 Hours -- back in 1970. "Employees were angry they weren't consulted."

Jeff Herring, the State of Utah's executive director for human resources, says his HR department made a mistake before rolling out the 4-10 schedule to most state employees: It surveyed workers but didn't solicit their comments.

However, employee comments were sought in the first follow-up survey three months after implementation, he says. About 6,000 comments were tallied from the 8,000 respondents.

"We found a rich source of data from those comments, most of which were positive," says Herring. "We were able to code them and we're continuing to use that information for some of our workforce-planning and engagement efforts.

"It's important for employees to know they have a say," he adds, especially with something as "life-changing" as a compressed workweek. "Even though it took a lot of time to read all the comments, it was a valuable part of the process."

Herring says employee feedback is the reason lunch breaks are no longer required, and workers' comments helped shape the new paid-holiday schedule. Instead of 11 eight-hour paid holidays, employees now work Columbus Day and receive 10 nine-hour holidays.

"The best thing we did was put the holiday schedule back on employees," says Herring. "We presented them a list of acceptable options and I was glad a majority wanted the holiday schedule that was selected."

Likewise at General Motors, input across the board -- from administrators, managers, employees and union representatives -- was instrumental in last summer's successful launch of the 4-10 schedule, says David Elliott, GM's director of labor relations.

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"The secret to our rather smooth implementation was doing the homework up front, getting the right folks involved, to work through some of the contractual ramifications that went with this," says Elliott. That, and learning from several plants that had been operating a 4-10 for years.

As much as possible, says Rupert, offer employees flexibility within a compressed schedule: Maybe split starts and endings. Perhaps a day off in mid-week instead of Fridays or Mondays. Possibly even an opt-out option.

"We argue for individual decisions on these arrangements" whenever possible, says Rupert. "For health or other personal reasons, some people aren't suited for compressed workweeks."

But if you're going to plunge ahead with such a schedule, then it should be sustained, says Carol Sladek, who heads the work/life consulting practice at Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Hewitt Associates.

"Employees get used to a certain schedule," she says. "Time is really valuable, even sacred, to people. When you start messing around with their hours, they get very nervous."

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