4-day workweek no panacea (Guest commentary)

Employers should determine exact goals before shortening workweek
By Johnny Laurent
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/03/2011

If the sheer number of articles and blogs devoted to the topic of a four-day, 10-hour (4/10) workweek is anything to go by, the debate over longer — but fewer — workdays is ramping up. Partially driven by the need to reduce costs, many public sector organizations have already picked this option.

Utah has stood as a popular point of reference for the success of a four-day week. In that state, 63 per cent of government employees report increased productivity and 79 per cent say they have had a positive experience, according to the government. As an added bonus, many of its employees also report lower levels of work-family conflicts. And while a government audit of the state’s program found the switch had not led to the multimillion-dollar savings it had hoped for, the costs of utilities, fleet services and overtime all declined.

Proponents of the revised schedule tout other benefits, including reduced commuting costs, both for workers and employers that pay for transportation-related costs. Cutting one workday reduces commuting by 20 per cent and having people start work earlier and finish later could also make roads less congested.

The 4/10 workweek may bring cost savings but not everyone is drinking the Kool-Aid. Some of the downsides include decreased productivity, morale and family time, according to law firm Young Conaway, which runs the Delaware Employment Law Blog. Additionally, the alternative schedule comes with the risk of developing the wrong perspective — employers should be focusing on results, not the amount of time spent doing work — and may force supervisors to micromanage in order to hit the same goals on a compressed timeline.

Critics of the 4/10 system also say employees may be inconvenienced because days that end later leave them with less time to spend with family or running errands. On the flipside, some of those tasks could be accomplished on the newly added third day of the weekend.

Employers considering a four-day week would also have to take into account customer needs on day five.

Another twist is the issue of worker engagement. In 1993, I implemented a 4/10 workweek and saw benefits in the short-term but, as time went on, productivity declined. And engaged employees did not hold to the four-day workweek — they actually worked more.

This was at a time with a less mobile workforce — a virtual office was barely being talked about. But the explosion of the mobility movement has put the power of the office computer into everyone’s phone, adding more complexity to this topic. Like the idea of a shortened workweek, breaking down the borders between the office and the outside world with technology changes everyone’s attitudes about work and requires a different approach to management.

Any organization looking to implement a 4/10 workweek needs to ensure it understands why it’s pursuing this type of change. Determining the exact goals of the program — employee happiness, energy cost reductions, increased efficiency — is necessary before a company experiments with shortened weeks. There are other alternatives to increase productivity and lower work-family conflicts.

Breaking down the traditional ideals of the workforce requires a concerted effort. I do not believe 4/10 is the answer — rather, a company should invest in its employees.

Johnny Laurent is a vice-president and general manager at Sage North America, a business application software vendor for small and mid-sized enterprises based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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