Are Reduced Work Weeks the Key to Work-Life Balance?

July 18, 2018 by Gary Stockton

As Millennials and Generation Z enter the workplace, traditional work expectations have been questioned. Not only are companies being challenged for their dress code, the younger generation also has higher expectations of the benefits they’ll receive. With the global economy growing at a rapid pace, boomers retiring and others leaving the American workforce to pursue entrepreneur opportunities, qualified job seekers can be a scarce commodity. At least 72% of organizations are increasing their benefits offerings to attract and retain employees.

To build a more attractive compensation package and entice more applicants, should companies embrace the “work-life balance” concept with reduced work weeks?

A Shorter Work Week Defined

While the origins of a reduced work week idea are unclear, ad agencies of the 1960’s may have started the trend when they noticed a reduction in productivity during the summer months. They began a program called “Summer Fridays” and offered half-days or full Fridays off.

State employees in Utah began working ten-hour days, Monday through Thursday, in 2008. The decision was based on the expectation of reducing operating costs. Although Utah reverted back to five-day work weeks in 2011, many state and local governments still operate on alternative schedules.

Many organizations already offer reduced work week programs and have found that employees are more productive in a shorter amount of time. The focus is more consistent, sick days reduced and, considering the amount of work an employee would likely accomplish before going on vacation, the motivation to complete tasks increases.

Companies Offering Flexibility

Amazon made headlines across the business world with its announcement of a 30-hour work week pilot program in 2016. In an effort to restore work-life balance, especially after a New York Times article claimed that Amazon pushed their employees to work day and night, the policy sought to offer flexibility and encourage more creativity.

Even before Amazon made its move, audit firm KPMG was already offering 4-day work weeks to increase morale and productivity among its employees. The program wasn’t available to all employees and managers had final discretion for whom it would be offered.

Project management company Basecamp offers a 4-day work week for employees who’ve been on staff for at least a year. May through September is the only time of year employees can take this option and they only have to work four 8-hour days.

The CEO of the advertising agency, SteelHouse, implemented a program that gives employees a 3-day weekend every month of the year. Many months already have a 3-day weekend due to certain holidays. For those months that don’t, the company offers “SteelHouse Days” on either a Monday or Friday.

In Germany, IG Metall, the country’s largest metalworker’s union, recently struck a deal to reduce their work week to 28 hours. In an effort to allow more time at home for those with younger children, the move will also allow companies to offer more 40-hour week contracts to others as needed. The deal is expected to reverberate throughout the EU with more businesses considering the same.

According to The Guardian’s report in 2011, employees in EU countries work considerably less than in the U.S. Luxembourg, for example, reveals the highest productivity at only working 29 hours on average per week.

Lessons Learned from Executives

Since a shorter, or compressed, work week has already been piloted in many organizations, executives can share best practices for implementing the program. Concerns were mainly around state labor laws, wage laws, vacation days and holidays. For instance, in California, overtime begins after an employee works 8 hours in a single day. Management must also lead the charge and allow the individual to take a 3-day weekend without work expectations such as being scheduled for a meeting on their day off. If possible, start small and monitor productivity before rolling out the program company-wide.

There are several flexible options for making a reduced work week possible including:

  • Four 10-hour work days
  • Summer Fridays
  • One 3-day weekend every month
  • Staggering or rotating schedules so the business can operate 5 days a week if required
  • Allowing employees to come in earlier rather than staying later

In a tight labor market where applicants have more than one job offer on the table, employers are offering even more impressive perks like reimbursement for vacations.  It’s no surprise that job seekers are doing their research and being choosy about where they land. Considering reduced work weeks and 3-day weekends, even if it’s only part of the time, is one benefit that is very attractive.

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