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The Short-Timers

Instituting a four-day workweek can help employers cut costs while giving employees longer weekends. There can be some drawbacks, however.

Monday, February 1, 2010
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When the state of Utah offered a compressed workweek to most of its employees starting in August of 2008, people paid heed. After all, it was the first state to widely roll out what Utah's top HR official called a "life-changing" event. But what surprised, even stunned, some observers was the number of state workers -- 82 percent -- who favored retaining the four-day schedule, according to a recent survey.

"I don't think you could survey any American workplace and get 80-some percent of the employees to agree on the color of the sky," says Michael Fischl, a University of Connecticut law professor who recently organized a symposium on the four-day workweek. "That overwhelming approval is just a sobering notion."

Jeff Herring, Utah's executive director for human resources, reports sizeable benefits with the Monday-through-Thursday, 10-hours-per-day workweek: reduced overtime and compensated leave, improved customer service and employee work/life balance, and a reported increase in productivity. Plus, the state has realized considerable savings in energy costs -- not to mention a reduction of its environmental footprint -- by closing many government buildings on Fridays.

"From an HR perspective, [the 4-10 schedule] is a great opportunity," says Herring, adding that about 17,000 of the state's 23,000 employees are on it. "Usually, a benefit costs money, but this is actually saving money."

And yet, a condensed schedule is by no means a panacea. Not all employees embrace trading longer days for what is typically a three-day weekend. Some may become fatigued and less productive as a result of 10-hour workdays. Finding after-hours public transportation and extended day care can also be problematic.

Condensed schedules may also prove to be a hard sell for some company leaders. Paul Rupert, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based workplace consultant, says it's often the least-attractive option for companies -- especially when exempt employees are considered.

Says Rupert, "I've had a number of executives tell me, 'Why would I give my exempt workers four 10-hour days when I'm getting five 10-hour days from them now?' "

A "Two-Way Street" 

Compressed workweeks have been around for decades. Riva Poor says she was aware of only several dozen firms offering such schedules when she authored her 1970 book, 4 Days, 40 Hours. The book garnered a torrent of publicity; Poor (who, at 73, continues to work as a management consultant in Cambridge, Mass.) was interviewed by scores of newspapers, national magazines, and radio and TV stations.

More recently, a 2009 survey by Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Hewitt Associates of 930 major employers showed 31 percent offered a compressed workweek year-round in some form, often involving only portions of the organization or just individuals. That's up from 27 percent in 2006.

The escalating cost of energy -- gasoline approached $4 per gallon in some areas in the summer of 2008 -- was one of the major reasons Utah and dozens of other government agencies nationwide began exploring or instituting compressed workweeks during the past two years. Utah initially estimated it could save $3 million annually in energy costs, but declining prices cut that figure down to about $500,000.

Saving energy was also a prime impetus at Detroit-based General Motors, where almost every major U.S. assembly plant -- and more than 15,000 employees -- migrated to the 4-10 schedule last summer. The plants' production lines consume massive amounts of energy, so closing the facilities one day per week reaps significant savings, says David Elliott, GM's director of labor relations.

At GM, managers relied on the experience gleaned by several of the company's plants throughout the country that had been on compressed workweeks for years. Local GM managers determined whether their plants would embrace the schedule, and most chose the 4-10, says Joe Ponce, GM's executive director of labor relations.

"We didn't want a variety of different arrangements and inconsistent applications across the country," says Elliott. "We basically had a common template. That took a lot of complexity out of the administrative processes." 

GM's hourly employees, their supervisors and those directly supporting plant operations work the 4-10. But some of the administrative staff, including HR, have remained on the traditional five-days-per-week schedule.

At Capital One Financial Corp., about 60 percent of its "non-customer-facing" employees take advantage of flexible work arrangements, which include compressed workweeks, says Rob Keeling, the Richmond, Va.-based company's vice president of human resources. A common schedule for both exempt and nonexempt Capital One employees is the 4-10, with either Fridays or Mondays off. But there are times when employees are asked to bend that routine.

"Once in a while, we may need an associate to, say, work on a Friday meeting with a client," says Keeling. "We're finding our associates are more than willing to be flexible. It's a give and take, a two-way street."

One compressed schedule -- five nine-hour days one week and five hours off the next -- is available only to Capital One's exempt employees. Keeling says that's because exempt workers don't receive overtime, whereas nonexempt employees do.

In Utah, some of the state's employees are ineligible for the 4-10 schedule. For instance, corrections, child and family services, highway patrol and state hospitals are among departments deemed "essential," offering service 24/7. In some cases, employees in those departments are allowed to work on compressed schedules when it's determined that services will not be affected, says Herring.

Ultimately, what determined which agency went on the 4-10 was a "business justification," he says. Would customer service be compromised? Could it be offered online? Could it be improved?

"We are here to serve citizens," says Herring. "That is, first and foremost, what we do."

A recent survey revealed that two-thirds of Utah residents believe the 4-10 should continue. While many more citizens have been accessing government services online since the schedule was implemented, many survey respondents said they appreciate the earlier opening (7 a.m.) and later closing (6 p.m.) at agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Fewer "Stops and Starts" 

While it's difficult to quantify, Utah employees "overwhelmingly" believe they are more productive with the 4-10, according to surveys taken after the schedule was implemented, says Herring.

According to him, absenteeism -- which involves sick, personal and compensated leave -- has declined by more than 5 percent since 4-10 was implemented.

Many employees record fewer sick days because they now use Fridays to make doctor appointments and run necessary errands. (Among the many leisure activities employees reportedly pursue on Fridays is more exercising and volunteering.) It's not only employees who believe they're more productive. Utah surveys indicate their managers do, too.

"Before [the 4-10], it would get close to 3 p.m. and I'd wonder if I should start a new project," says Herring. "But now I remember I've got three hours left and I can get it done. There are fewer stops and starts, so you're more likely to keep rolling."

Despite not working Fridays, he says, it's easier to conduct meetings with the 4-10, because most employees are working standardized hours -- 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Before the 4-10, many employees worked widely varying schedules, making it more difficult to arrange meetings, says Herring.

Contrary to some assumptions, most employees who work 10-hour days do not become more fatigued -- and thus, presumably less productive -- during the day's final two hours, says Lori Wadsworth, a Brigham Young University professor who has been surveying Utah employees. That corresponds with reams of research she's reviewed in the nursing field, where nurses have long worked 12-hour days, she says.

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"The research shows fatigue doesn't come into play until about 12 hours," says Wadsworth. "Anecdotally, we've heard comments from Utah employees that a 10-hour day is long and that they're exhausted," he adds. "But many also say they're really energized because they know they'll have a three-day weekend."

Since many jobs at General Motors are labor-intensive, the automaker and union representatives have partnered to ensure 4-10 workers aren't overly fatigued, says Elliott. Thus, employees often perform varied tasks over 10 hours to lessen repetitive stress.

"We intentionally rotate them with five or six others throughout the day doing different job assignments," says Elliott. "That provides some ergonomic relief for different parts of the body."

Everyday Worries 

The 4-10 is not expected to increase production or reduce overtime at GM. But in Utah, the abbreviated workweek has shrunk the state government's overtime costs by about $4.1 million annually. Wadsworth speculates that many employees are simply too weary to continue working beyond 10 hours.

Given today's economy, recruiting isn't a big priority. But Herring believes the 4-10 is invaluable for Utah's long-term recruiting and retention, especially for younger workers.

"Work/life balance is so key to the emerging workforce, so I can't help but think [4-10] is a helpful tool, at least allowing us to differentiate ourselves," he says, adding that surveys show younger workers are, by far, the most supportive of compressed workweeks.

Herring says the 4-10 remains a concern for nearly one-fifth of those on the schedule. In particular, he says, recent employee surveys have revealed many females ages 28 to 40 with children continue to have reservations. "Their big issue isn't about child care," he says, "but about not having time for after-work activities like getting to their kids' soccer game or going to dinner."

How do you address those concerns?

"There is no one solution or silver bullet for all employees," says Herring. "There will always be trade-offs and we try to be as flexible as possible."

As for other pressing matters, such as day care and transportation availability, the state's HR department has partnered with other agencies to find solutions.

For example, one major concern among employees was finding public transportation earlier and later in the day. The HR department provided workers' home and work ZIP codes to the Utah Transit Authority, which ended up adding bus service in certain cases. 

Another chief worry was finding extended day care for employees with small children. There, the HR department partnered with the state's Office of Childcare to help parents locate or negotiate extended day care. The upshot: Child-care concerns dropped precipitously while some employees, including Herring, saved money by paying for four days instead of five.

"My wife and I both work and we've got two youngsters in child care," says Herring. "That's such a basic need that, when we launched, most people -- myself included -- immediately worked on ways to accommodate that. Once people made those child-care arrangements, they were fine [with the schedule]."

For all of the compressed workweek's advantages, Herring says, there is no guarantee it will continue in Utah. It has passed the pilot phase but will receive ongoing reviews.

Similarly, while GM's Elliott is pleased with the 4-10 schedule so far, the automaker is keeping its options open.

"It's a nice option, but it doesn't fit every circumstance," he says. "I think it's perceived as a nice tool to have in our toolbox right now."

See also:

Laying the Groundwork

Secrets to Success

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