Much has been written about the benefits of a four-day work week; less has been said about how to pull it off.
What do you tell clients? Should vacation days be slashed? Do you rotate people so every day is covered? Should employees be prevented from working elsewhere on their day off?
Choose the right day
London-based brand and design agency Perq Studio has made sure there’s no room for confusion. With 10 clients, it closes on Tuesdays so staff can “reset and reinvigorate.” In return, its workers have agreed to 20 vacation days instead of 25 and to not moonlight at other companies.
Tuesday was chosen based on the ebbs and flows of client needs, explains founder Laura Giffard. She says: “Monday is when everyone hits the ground running from the weekend and late Thursday and all day Friday are the times when natural anxieties about project deadlines begin to appear and last-minute requests come in.”
Laura Giffard’s London agency closes on Tuesdays. This, coupled with the fact Giffard felt three days in a row was too long for clients to be without support, meant a choice of Tuesday or Wednesday. A rota system was briefly considered but the bosses felt it left them in danger of confusing clients. Giffard explains: “That would have rendered moot the whole work-life balance principle we were aiming to achieve, as people would inevitably be contacted with questions ‘only they could answer’ on their day away from the office.”
Though this setup works well for creative agencies, many businesses need to make sure there’s always someone steering the ship or they risk falling behind and being unable to fulfill orders.
GreenDropShip processes orders every day of the week so, for managing director Allen Kaplun, shutting down for a day is not an option. But, with some careful scheduling, the company has still managed to introduce a four-day work week in its Dallas Fort-Worth area facility after staff voted to work four 10-hour days.
In order to keep operations going, all staff agreed to work Monday through Wednesday except in extenuating circumstances, leaving Thursday and Friday up for grabs. Then Kaplun needed to find enough willing volunteers to take Thursdays off since most favored Fridays.
Next, he implemented a policy where staff would need to make a request at least a week in advance if they wished to alternate their usual day off. He added: “They understood there would be no guarantee the request would be granted.”
A rota system works best for companies that need to fulfil orders round the clock. The biggest challenge was that the facility needed a manager on-site almost all the time. Fortunately, the site manager lived close by and agreed to keep doing regular hours.
Kaplun says the change supported retention among those with longer commutes and picking Thursday and Friday made sense given the high demand to ship orders accumulated from the weekend and lighter workload towards the end of the week. He adds: “It eliminated the need to re-negotiate schedules with our staff.”
Listen to demand
Employees are already finding ways to make work fit around their lives. In a previous role, Amanda Ponzar–now chief communications officer at Community Health Charities–was denied her request to work a four-day week as she was an essential employee. HR informed her that employees who did a four-day work week had taken a 20% pay cut.
She recalls: “I created my own schedule by taking advantage of the organization’s pre-existing policy that we could work more hours during a two-week period and get every other Friday off. I filled in the rest of the time using vacation, personal time and holidays, creating my own four-day work week without taking a pay cut. I peeked at email and provided my mobile number for emergencies, but it didn’t impact my work at all.”
Ponzar believes four-day work weeks are not needed if schedules are flexible enough and telecommuting is enabled with good technology, pointing out that most senior-level and motivated employees will put in whatever hours are needed to accomplish the job and figure out a schedule that works best for them.
Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says that if businesses can be more “outcome-focused,” all kinds of changes to work schedules can be accommodated, and issues about vacation days start to matter a lot less.
She adds: “If you can also get clients focused on what is being achieved, and manage expectations about responsiveness–setting boundaries around when they can expect quicker responses and when they cannot–then you can succeed in making the transition to a four-day week.”
The argument for shifting the whole workplace culture from one of hours to one of deliverables is also advocated by Allison Quintanilla Plattsmier of AQP Consulting, who asks: “The real question we should be asking is why we have decided that 40 hours is what it takes to accomplish a job. In a way, we have infantilized the workplace by tracking hours obsessively.”
She adds: “It is proven employees get more done in four days because they are aware there is much less room for downtime. They spend all their time completely focused on the task to justify the day off.”
Ask yourself this: what percentage of your own work week do you actually spend working? And could you be more efficient, driven and goal-oriented if you knew you only had four days to get everything done?
Check the HR rulebook
HR executive Paul Falcone advises companies to check and follow the rules which vary by state in the U.S. He says: “In California, for example, it’s more complex. Employees must be informed of the desired schedule change, vote in a secret ballot election, and pass the new alternative work schedule with a two-thirds majority.
“Different states have varying levels of compliance and worker protections but, generally speaking, if the employees see the value in the new work schedule, they’ll lobby hard among themselves to make it happen.”
Given that fortune–and staff retention–favors the brave, it could be well worth another look at how to make shorter work weeks work for your business.
This interview first appeared in Forbes.