Management & Labor

Free on Friday

Here's a typical Friday schedule for Jeff Herring, the director of human resources for the state of Utah: First, a leisurely breakfast with his wife...
November 30, 2008

Here's a typical Friday schedule for Jeff Herring, the director of human resources for the state of Utah: First, a leisurely breakfast with his wife and their two young kids. After driving his five-year-old son J.D. to kindergarten, Herring may go to the gym and run household errands. In the afternoon, he might pick J.D. up and take him to the zoo. Or maybe not. The schedule, Herring says, is wide open. "The world's my oyster on Fridays."

That's because Utah is closed for business on Fridays. The state is in the middle of an ambitious one-year trial to see whether this kind of alternative schedule can work. Most state employees now show up for four 10-hour days -- Monday through Thursday -- with every Friday off. The mandatory four-day schedule applies to 17,000 employees, roughly 80 percent of the state's workforce.

Last summer, as fuel prices spiked to record highs in an already flagging economy, states and cities across the country began looking at whether compressed work weeks -- often referred to as "4/10s" -- might provide some relief. Governments could save money by closing buildings on Friday. Employees could save money on gas if they had to commute to the office only four days per week. And who wouldn't want a three-day weekend?

Through the summer, cities across the country -- the largest being Birmingham, Alabama -- began adopting four-day work weeks. In August, Utah became the first state to implement a 4/10 schedule. And states everywhere are discussing whether a 4/10 might work for them. Georgia, Hawaii and Washington State are all experimenting with 4/10s in a handful of agencies.

The arguments for compressed work weeks seem pretty self-evident. But the governments that have moved to 4/10s are learning that adopting these schedules is complex. There are unanticipated challenges as well as some unforeseen benefits. Depending on how the experiments in Utah and other places progress over the next several months, more governments may make a wholesale shift toward compressed work weeks. Or it may turn out that states and localities simply can't run effectively when they have nobody working on Fridays.

Shorting the Week

Alternative work schedules themselves aren't all that novel. Companies in the private sector have implemented flexible schedules for decades. Even in the public sector, various state agencies have offered alternative schedules as an option for employees. "States have always had these types of flexible schedules," says Leslie Scott, the head of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. "What we've seen in the past few months, though, is that they're now sort of taking them out and dusting them off."

The same has been true at the local level, says Rex Facer, a Brigham Young University professor who has extensively studied alternative work schedules. In a survey this past summer of 150 human resources directors in cities with more than 25,000 residents, Facer found that 46 percent of the cities offered some kind of alternative schedule. That includes compressed work weeks, as well as initiatives such as telecommuting and job-sharing programs. But the most prevalent option at the local level is the 4/10 schedule -- 19 percent of the cities in Facer's survey said that was the only alternative schedule option they offered. "Cities have been doing this for years, trying to cope with a range of fiscal stress they've been feeling," Facer says. "But there's been a significant uptick in these work week options in the past year."

High gas prices and strained public coffers drove much of the renewed interest in alternative schedules. But it was Utah's pulling the trigger that really got governments talking. Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. announced at the end of June that the state would implement a mandatory 4/10 schedule for most state workers, and the new policy went into effect just over a month later. "It was one of those things where we could have formed a commission, and we could study this for six, eight, 12 months and then decide whether to do it," says Lisa Roskelley in Huntsman's office. "That's exactly what we didn't want to do."

Instead, the state implemented 4/10s across the board. Results will be assessed in a real-world environment. "It's great that we can study something we actually have in place," Herring says. "It's not a hypothetical."

The state already is seeing big results. Energy consumption is down, on track to meet Utah's prediction of $3 million in savings over the first year. Employee sick leave is down, now that workers have a built-in day for doctor appointments and other necessary errands. Absenteeism is down 6 percent from a year ago, which Herring says could translate into $13 million annually in productivity savings. And employees really seem to like working on a 4/10 schedule. In a statewide survey in August, 80 percent of employees said they either were in favor of the new schedule or were neutral. The state conducted a follow-up survey last month. Once the results are in, Herring says he anticipates that number will be 90 percent.

Other aspects are harder to measure. The idea that employees will save on gas costs, for instance, is difficult to put into numbers. True, they don't have to commute to work on Fridays. But it's unlikely that they're staying confined in their homes on their days off. It's entirely possible that some employees now actually drive more on Fridays than they used to. "The environmental metrics are harder to quantify," Herring says. "But whenever you decrease the number of people who are forced to drive in to the office, I think that's a good thing."

Utah's program certainly has had its initial challenges. Employees' biggest concerns about working longer days centered on the availability of public transportation and child care. So officials have worked with the state department of transportation to extend certain bus schedules, making sure that state employees still have access to buses when they need to get to and from work. And the state has been helping parents find options for extended child care. As employees have settled in to the 4/10 work week, another issue has come up: When you're at work for 10 hours a day, it's much harder to fit in any personal exercise time. So Utah has initiated a 30-minute exercise break for workers three times a week -- sort of a seventh-inning stretch in the afternoon.

Generally, the public in Utah seems to be warming to the idea of government being available only four days per week. Initially, people complained that offices such as the Department of Motor Vehicles were shuttered on Fridays. And in the first two months of the state's experiment, four times as many people contacted the governor's office to complain about the new schedule as called to praise it. But citizens are responding positively to those same offices' extended hours Monday through Thursday. And more and more people are going online to conduct state business. Utah had the advantage of an already robust slate of online services, with more than 850 services available on the Web. Since August, the volume of people using the state's online services has doubled.

Different Strokes

Not all 4/10s are created equal. Governments essentially fall into two camps when it comes to compressed work weeks. Some, like Utah, mandate a standard Monday-to-Thursday schedule and are closed on Fridays. In other places, such as the city of Birmingham, each employee works four days on a rotating schedule, but the government itself stays open five days a week.

The latter version is much more prevalent among governments, but it comes with unique challenges. Obviously, coordinating schedules across an agency becomes a complicated juggling act. Not everyone can take off on Friday or Monday. And with 20 percent of your employees out on any given day, it's much harder to plan meetings. Employees are more isolated, and managers don't get as much face-time with each worker. Governments that opt for a shifting 4/10 schedule also miss out on any energy savings that might be achieved by closing public buildings on Fridays.

Both types of 4/10s, however, offer one big benefit that may ultimately be their biggest single selling point: Alternative schedules are a powerful recruitment and retention tool. A four-day work week helps governments compete with the private sector, particularly for younger Generation Y workers who want more of a balance between work and free time. And in an economic downturn, flexible schedules can be a way for governments to offer employees an added benefit without raising their salaries. "Before these alternative schedules were about energy savings and gas prices, they were truly about a work-life balance," says Leslie Scott. "Now, we're seeing it come back around to that."

That's been the case in Washington State, where 10 agencies are currently engaged in a six-month trial of mandatory compressed work weeks. The state's ideas about 4/10s already have been shifting, says Heather Moss, the state policy analyst who's in charge of implementing the program. "When we started, we were looking at Utah, and we were thinking about this in terms of energy savings and the environment," Moss says. "But our thinking has broadened. Now, we're looking at it much more in holistic terms of employee satisfaction."

Still, don't bet on too many other states or cities following with mandatory 4/10s immediately. For one thing, gas prices are down significantly from their highs last summer. That makes it tougher to sell the idea of overhauling a government's traditional schedule. On top of that, with the experiments in Utah and elsewhere giving 4/10s a test run, most states and cities will be watching -- and waiting before they act. Even then, what works for one government might not be a good idea for others. "There probably will continue to be an increase in interest in alternative schedules," says Rex Facer. "But they're not for everybody. An organization needs to think long and hard about whether it's the right decision for them."

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