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Four-day workweek reactions range from warm to cool

The rise of flexible hours, along with remote and hybrid work, is reviving a discussion: Should firms implement a four-day workweek? The answer is anything but simple.

The shift to flexible hours, hybrid offices and remote work may be giving some new life to the idea of a four-day workweek. But it has mixed support.

Some employers see a future for the model, believing that if the focus is on managing employee outcomes, not hours, it can work. Others, however, believe a companywide, four-day workweek is impractical because of business needs.

The concept of working four, 10-hour days is old, but the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shaken office routines and assumptions about how work gets done, is giving it new life.

For now, there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of support among employers. That's despite a new Democratic-sponsored bill in Congress calling for a four-day workweek. The proposed legislation would require overtime after 32 hours of labor instead of 40 hours for nonexempt, hourly workers. Salaried workers, or exempt employees, wouldn't be affected by the bill.

Customer needs have to be met

One company, FleetCor Technologies Inc., is changing its workplace model. Before the pandemic, most employees worked in the office. Now, the $2.4 billion workforce payments processing company is supporting other options.

For specific jobs, the company is allowing employees to work anywhere or, in some cases, choose a hybrid option. Others can choose to return to the office full time, according to Crystal Williams, chief HR officer at the Atlanta-based firm. She expects about half of the employees to return to offices full time.

Technology kept employees connected during the pandemic, and productivity didn't suffer, Williams said. "Our employees were as productive as they were in the office five days a week," she said.

The next generation coming up in the workforce -- they're very different. They want to work for a company that thinks about them, as well as the profits of the company.
Crystal WilliamsChief HR officer, FleetCor Technologies Inc.

Despite its reconsideration of the workplace model, FleetCor isn't considering a four-day workweek arrangement, Williams said. "Our customers need us seven days a week," she said.

Williams believes hybrid and remote work, as well as flexible hours, will be permanent features at FleetCor, especially for recruitment.

"The next generation coming up in the workforce -- they're very different," she said. "They want to work for a company that thinks about them, as well as the profits of the company."

They also want "to make a difference while having a maximum work-life balance," Williams said.

Four-day approach adopted

AppNeta Inc., a network performance monitoring system, is shifting to a four-day workweek schedule every two weeks. The experiment began in June 2020, when the company tried a four-day workweek for a month to reduce pandemic-related stress and pressure, said Matt Stevens, CEO of the Boston-based firm.

After a month, AppNeta collected employee feedback. Employees had concerns, especially for teams that dealt directly with customers. Cross-organizational teams that needed to coordinate also reported problems, Stevens said.

The company tried a new approach: a three-day weekend every two weeks, with 10 days' worth of work accomplished in nine days. They gave it a 60-day trial. This change produced "overwhelmingly positive" feedback, Stevens said. The results also included a 17% boost in productivity, which the firm tracks through metrics including its software development.

The productivity gain was especially noticeable after a three-day weekend. The following Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays were off the charts in terms of productivity, Stevens said. The company has since made biweekly four-day workweeks permanent.

Employees are "still required to get your 40 hours' worth of goal commitments completed, or 80 hours every two weeks, but how you get it done, it's up to you," Stevens said.

"Hit your goals -- I really don't care about your hours," Stevens said.

It boils down to trust

In Jackson, Mich., Juli Smith, president of the Smith Consulting Group LLC, a recruiting firm specializing in architecture and civil engineering occupations nationwide, began offering a four-day workweek to her employees this summer and is making it permanent.

But in managing a four-day workweek, "you have to focus on outcomes," Smith said. For employees, that means meeting the job's requirements. For employers, that means having confidence in the team, she said. And Smith speaks highly of her team.

"I do believe that there are a lot of people out there that could benefit from it," Smith said of the four-day workweek. "But I also believe there are a lot of people out there that would want it and would not be able to handle it."

Global Upside LLC, which provides global business expansion services such as hiring overseas, offers employees flexibility in hours but has not implemented a four-day workweek as an organization. But the firm, based in San Jose, Calif., will offer it as an option to employees, depending on their needs. Few of the firm's employees have taken this option, said Gita Bhargava, co-founder and COO of Global Upside.

"People feel that 10-hour days are long because the majority of our workforce has families," Bhargava said.

Plus, Global Upside provides another option: letting employees schedule their hours to meet family needs. Providing that kind of flexibility works for the business because it supports clients globally. "You can take any time zone you want that does work for you," she said.

Broader complications

The MIT Sloan School of Management doesn't have a formal four-day workweek policy. But some employees are able to work a four-day workweek under its flexible hours policy, said Peter Hirst, senior associate dean at Sloan. The school has allowed these schedules in some cases, "and it's worked out well for the organization," he said. But he doesn't see it working for an entire organization because of customer needs.

Looking at the issue broadly, Hirst said he sees several problems with a four-day workweek. First, an employee's day off may become encroached upon. An employee may feel the need to check for and be available for issues that require a quick response.

Top four-day workweek issues

A companywide four-day workweek might solve the encroachment problem, but that may be too difficult to manage for customer-facing organizations, Hirst said.

Alternatively, a four-day workweek where employees work rigid 10-hour days to get the three-day weekend introduces a "form of inflexibility," Hirst said.

Reducing hours creates other issues. People in low-skill, hourly categories may not gain from shorter weeks, Hirst said. "If they are only working 32 hours a week, they will have a hard time making ends meet," he said.

Hirst said the idea that a workweek is set at 40 hours is an inherited part of a culture. There is "nothing magic about 40 hours," he said.

Hirst does see more people using business-flexibility policies to create a four-day workweek for themselves, including 32-hour workweeks.

"Employers need skilled and talented people and, to some extent, they're going to have to hire people on the terms that people want to be hired on," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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