Can The 4 Day Work Week Work? Let's Look At The Places That Have Tried

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Many businesses and governments have experimented with a four day work week. Some pack 40 hours into those 4 days, while others simply have their employees work one fewer day. How has that worked out, and what lessons can be learned?


Can the 4 day work week accomplish everything a five day work week does? The answers may surprise you. PHOTO: Alex Proimos, CC License
The 4 day work week is something many people long for (a Tuesday post of ours on that topic caused a stir on reddit). There are a lot of theoretical and practical considerations to deal with, but for some, it's not just theory, it's reality. Many businesses and governments have experimented with a four day work week. Some pack 40 hours into those 4 days, while others simply have their employees work one fewer day. How has that worked out, and what lessons can be learned?

Utah went to a schedule of 4 days a week, 10 hours a day in 2008, under Republican Governor (and 2012 presidential candidate) Jon Huntsman. The idea was to save money in a time of soaring gas prices, and conserve energy. Energy costs did drop 13%, which was not the 20% they were hoping for, but quite considerable, given that the same number of hours were being worked. Most employees reported that they loved the change. The extra day gave them to get more personal business done and allowed for more family time. Some people hated the 10 hour work days, but most were able to handle it, provided that it was balanced with constant 3 day weekends. Studies found that 79% of state employees liked the change and 63% actually reported being more productive.

Utah gave up the 4 day work week two years later, not because of complaints from state employees or issues with their work, but because state residents complained about how no government offices (post offices, the DMV, etc.) were open on Fridays, and that this was a big inconvenience for them. From Utah, we learn that a schedule of 4 days a week, 10 hours a day, is good for employees and the environment, but bad for customers who expect certain services to be available every week day.
 
Clackamas County, Oregon, currently works on a 4 day schedule. They voted in May to uphold that schedule with one adjustment: construction projects would go back to 5 days a week. Clackamas has had a 4 day work week since 2008, and it is only recently that certain components, starting with the Department of Transportation and Development, have switched back to 5 days a week. Other services, such as emergency services, county records and the Election Department stuck to a 5 day schedule from the beginning. Like in Utah, most employees on the 4 day schedule gave it a hearty thumbs up. 70% of employees liked the 4 day week and wanted it to stay the same. 50% of job applicants said it made the jobs more desirable. People who used government services even liked the change: 51% said it made no difference, 29% reported improved customer service and the remaining 20% said that service was worse.
 
Clackamas, being smaller than the entire state of Utah, has the manueaverability to adjust the schedules of individual departments as the need arises. This can be done on a larger scale of course, but it is a clunkier operation. Clackamas also shows that a 4 day week doesn't have to mean inferior customer service.
 
Lastly, we come to my favorite example: 37signals. 37signals, a software company, specializing in intra-business software, has a moving schedule: from May to October--that's half the year-- they work 4 days a week. They don't cram the hours of five days into four, they simply take that last day off.

"The benefits of a six-month schedule with three-day weekends are obvious," explained CEO Jason Fried in a 2012 op-ed for the New York Times. "But there’s one surprising effect of the changed schedule: better work gets done in four days than in five.

"When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time."

By having a schedule that changes every six months, 37signals provides a rhythm to the year, and ensures that their employees maintain an appreciation for the 4 day schedule.

What's your schedule, and how does it affect your quality of life? Let us know in the comments and on twitter.

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