To say that it was big news when Utah adopted a four-day work week two years ago would be a massive understatement. In many minds, this was set to be a turning point for the American workforce. On both the pro and con side of the four-day-work-week issue, prognosticators were predicting it would spread through the public sector and overtake the private sector, as well. Even a year later, Time was predicting that a shake-up was just around the corner:
In an era when most of us seem to be working more hours than ever (provided we're still lucky enough to have jobs), 17,000 people in Utah have embarked on an unusual experiment. A year ago, the Beehive State became the first in the U.S. to mandate a four-day workweek for most state employees, closing offices on Fridays in an effort to reduce energy costs. The move is different from a furlough in that salaries were not cut; nor was the total amount of time employees work. They pack in 40 hours by starting earlier and staying later four days a week. But on that fifth (glorious) day, they don't have to commute, and their offices don't need to be heated, cooled or lit. After 12 months, Utah's experiment has been deemed so successful that a new acronym could catch on: TGIT (thank God it's Thursday).
The article went on to list those successes—most of them financial—and all but declare that the four-day workweek had arrived. "There is a sense that this is ready to take off," one head of a university symposium on the issue was quoted as saying.
A year later, the future doesn’t seem quite so bright for the four-day workweek. Utah is still the only state with the policy. And last week, a brutal legislative audit of Utah’s effort was released, which said that state officials had grossly overestimated the amount saved by the program. The four-day policy had had been touted as saving the state as much as $3 million, but the audit revealed the actual savings had been about $502,000. The new schedule didn’t help reduce overtime as much state officials had expected, the audit said, simply because most overtime was paid out to deal with immediate issues like emergency repairs and snow removal that didn’t change when the schedule did.
There was even more bad news for proponents of the plan:
While one of the goals of the four-day workweek was to improve employee productivity, the audit says there is little evidence to indicate that occurred. Some managers and employees can provide anecdotes that productivity has improved, but there's not enough data available to verify it, the audit says. The audit also warns that a 1 percent decline in worker productivity would cost the state nearly $15 million — far more than the recognized savings.
In effect, the four-day workweek may very well be costing Utah money. Meanwhile, the private sector hasn’t exactly been rushing to make the switch. Kris Dunn at HR Capitalist, who has criticized the idea before, clearly wasn’t surprised that the idea hasn’t caught on. I think Dunn’s rants on the subject are a little extreme, but they do acknowledge (when many people don’t seem to want to) that a four-day work week isn’t necessarily the panacea everyone suggests:
There are serious drawbacks to the 4 day thing. Packing 40 hours into four days isn't necessarily the most productive way to work. Many people find that eight hours in a day is enough, and requiring them to do two extra hours a day can cause morale issues in other ways. Folks with kids can be disadvantaged due to child care considerations, etc. And then there's this little consideration in the category I call.... RESULTS.
Dunn’s alternative solution is to stop counting hours and focus on results:
Loosen your iron grip on face time…Allow people to telecommute some. Offer flexible hours as long as the customer gets served. Measure how people are doing every couple of months. Manage by results, manage by objectives, manage by output.Whatever you want to call it. Just don't manage by hour count. Unless you're on the factory floor, it's a surefire way to ensure you get less of lots of things - engagement, passion, innovation, etc.
I don’t agree that the very concept of four-day workweek causes people to watch the clock more or to do less; most people I know who are on such a schedule end up working at least a little bit on their supposed “day off” as well. But I do agree that both employers and employees turned a blind eye to the downsides of the four-day workweek when it hit the height of its hype. Now, more people seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, though there are plenty of workplaces where a four-day schedule is working great for some employees.
Is a four-day workweek right for you, or your company? Peter Vanden Bos at inc.com has a good rundown of issues to consider, and I like his guidelines:
Before you decide to implement one, make sure you've thought through the benefits and drawbacks. Have in mind a clear goal of what you want to accomplish by switching the days and hours your employees work. Do you want to save money on energy costs? Increase productivity? Make your employees happier? "It can work for certain companies, and certain employees, but there are a lot of risks involved, which are under-emphasized," Bird says.