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While four day work weeks may be a good idea for some, policies that seem to control work life balance are based on two assumptions. Number one, that work is bad and should be reduced or avoided. [Laughs]
Or two, that we know what will work effectively for all people.
Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we help HR and business leaders embrace joy in the workplace. I’m JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink and Powered by Purple Ink, and with me is my friend and co-host Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting, an HR consulting practice.
Our topic today is the four day work week. Susan and I have both worked four day work weeks at some point in our careers. I did this from 1995 to 2001, and I still think of this time period as one of the most productive times of my career. So we thought we would do some homework on statistics, stories, and where the business community is on this topic. Of course, the world of work changed significantly for most of the workforce – all over the world, not just in the US – in March of 2020. Working remotely became a new option or even a requirement for many organizations. While many employees were also home with their children at the same time, options for flexibility also significantly rose, so there have been a significant amount of recent articles, discussions, and research around the idea of working four day work weeks. This is not, however, a new idea. It has actually been around for a long time. I grew up 20 minutes from a naval base in southern Indiana, where many, if not most, of my friends, parents, neighbors, and extended family were employed. This was in the 1960s, and most, if not all, the naval base employees had the option to work four day work weeks or nine days in a two week period, and they had the option to start their day of work anytime between 6:00 to 9:00 am. Hospitals have also been a leader in long but less days, many times even paying nurses and other positions full time pay for three 12 hour shifts. So I’m curious why these options are not mainstream in most other organizations. By the way, most of the research I found also talked about reducing the total number of hours worked in a week, but note that our discussion today is really focused on working a full time, or generally 40 hours a week for the same pay, and not a reduction of total hours worked. Not that that couldn’t be an option, that’s just not our focus on this podcast today. However, I will note that Americans work significantly more than employees in most other affluent countries, and have zero guaranteed legal paid time off.
In a Gallup article in September 2021 entitled, “Is the Four Day Work Week a Good Idea?” the research found that employees with a four day work week rate their overall lives better, yet shorter work weeks show a higher percentage of disengaged employees, and that employers should focus on improving the work experience first. Gallup described the four day work week as a controversial idea, but they found a lower burnout and higher wellbeing among employees. This is not just a US topic. Trials have been happening in Spain and Iceland in the last five years. Japanese employers are now urged to permit their employees to work in this model. Organizations all over the world are considering more permanent flexibility with remote or hybrid work arrangements, based on what we’ve all learned from the largest workforce experiment in history – the pandemic. In March of 2020, Gallup asked over 10,000 employees the number of days they typically work in a week. Only 5% said they worked four days a week. They also measured employee engagement and wellbeing data. Those working six days a week had the highest rates of burnout, no surprise, at 38% of them. Those working five days a week at a 26% rate of burnout, while only 23% of those working four days a week, noted that they were burnt out. This group also had the highest rate of thriving wellbeing at 63%.
Wow. Interesting. On the flip side, they also found that two thirds of engaged employees are thriving in their overall lives, regardless of the number of days worked in a week, and that when it comes to overall wellbeing, the quality of the work has almost three times the impact regardless of the number of days worked, as well. So if the goal is to build an engaging workplace culture, reducing the work week may not be the place to start. While four day work weeks may be a good idea for some, policies that seem to control work life balance are based on two assumptions. Number one, that work is bad and should be reduced or avoided. [Laughs]
Or two, that we know what will work effectively for all people. So, yeah, we may be making an assumption that a four day work week is good for everyone. I personally have two experiences with this concept of thinking that we know what will work effectively for all people. So in the mid 1990s, I worked for an organization of about 50 people, and I thought it would be awesome to move everyone to a four day work week, or at least give the option for people to work four days a week, so I went to the owner and I got her permission to roll this out, and I really worked very diligently on a policy and what what the guidelines might be around it and making sure that we always had coverage and all that good thing. Of course, I didn’t talk to any of the employees about it. [Laughs]
I just created this all on my own, and I rolled it out, and I was so excited, and I couldn’t wait for people to come to me and say, “Oh, this is,” you know, “perfect. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Not one person responded that they were interested in it.
Oh my gosh, what a shock.
Although I say not one – guess who was interested in it?
And so I assumed everyone else would be interested in it. But what I heard was that we had a lot of young moms who were there, and they needed to, you know, be home to get their kids off the bus and/or, you know, to… even if they went to extended care after school, that they couldn’t work, you know, really late in the evenings, they needed to pick up at a certain time, or just all different kinds of reasons that people had that it didn’t make sense for them to work four days a week. So I just thought that was interesting that we said earlier about, you know, trying to control the hours that people work. So making the assumption that four days would work for everyone is not true. I also remember back in 1985, when I graduated from college, that I had two offers to work for two different CPA firms, both of which were great firms, and I was really debating on which one I wanted to accept. And of course, it was well known that CPA firms worked a lot of hours during January to April 15, and they both told me I would work approximately 55 hours a week – or that that was the average workweek. But one firm said “We only work 55 hours a week and here are the hours. We work late on Mondays, we leave early on Tuesdays, we… we work late on Wednesdays,” and I was married with no kids and no real schedule, but I did have some personal activities that were going on at different nights of the week, not always consistent. And I thought, “Well, what if those nights conflict with my activities?” and I accepted the other offer interesting knowing that I would probably work more hours, but I wanted to have control over when I worked the hours. So I think that’s always been just a part of my mindset that I don’t mind working extra, but I want to… I want to work when I want to work. And of course, that wasn’t always perfect, right? But at least I had more control over it.
Boy, that is a great point. My son, when he first graduated from college, went to work for Boeing, and they have nine days of work every two weeks, and so every other Friday, they are off, so they work longer in order to make up for it. And I’ll tell you, he worked for them for three years, then went off to do other things, but it has spoiled him for life. I really… he’s always like, “Oh man, I need my every other Fridays.” And this… this probably… he’s probably been gone for 10 years from that type of situation. So know that once you have control or you have more flexibility, it’s hard going back to traditional.
Right. It really is. Gallup’s overall conclusion in this article is that flex time is the most desired perk among employees, and with the increase in hybrid work models going forward, it makes more sense to use a flex time model than to legislate hours or days worked. And if the employers focus on improving the quality of the work experience, they could have nearly triple the positive influence on employees’ lives versus just shortening the workweek.
Wow, that does make sense. In a December article by Zeeshan Aleem, an MSNBC opinion columnist, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the biggest bloc of liberal lawmakers in Congress as of December 2021, endorsed a bold bill which would seek to implement a four day work week. The author felt there was no real prospect of this becoming a law in the near term, but noted that the idea is garnering more attention worldwide and could serve as a potential point of focus going forward. The bill also proposes that employees would be paid time and a half after 32 hours of work versus 40 hours of work as it is today. The idea around the proposed bill is that it would nudge both employer and employees to rethink work and increase efficiency.
Yeah, interesting. And you know, I would have said a month ago that I thought that was an awesome idea and love it. But now, after reading this Gallup article, it takes me back to that’s not what all people want. Right?
Yeah, they want to have the choice, not the mandate from it. One of my favorite articles on this topic was from Simon Catling in September of 21. He’s a British writer and reported that Belmont Packing, a UK company, has opted for a four day work week, but it wasn’t focused on productivity. Their intent was to give staff more time to focus on themselves. Their commercial manager was quoted as saying, “We value our biggest assets, the employees whose hard work, commitment, and dedication make our business the success it is.” So I love that idea behind it that’s really encouraging people to enjoy that day with something for themselves or their families, and kind of took a different spin on that rather than thinking, “Oh, we’ll be more productive if we just work four days.” So Susan, kind of going back to the beginning when I mentioned that both of us – which I think is very interesting – that both of us worked four days a week at some point in our career. How did that come up for you, or why did you choose to do that?
For me, it was really about 1990 through 2000, so we overlapped the same period. I mean, you only did it for five years, and I did it for ten, but it was all during the 90s. At the time, I had two children, and my oldest was going into kindergarten and my youngest was two, and I just felt as though life was passing me by, because I spent all my hours at work. And I thought, I really do want to be a room mother. I wanted to be a Girl Scout leader, which ended up being for about seven years. I wanted to be able to go on class field trips, I wanted to do fundraisers, all those things. And so I did put together a business case and went and talked to my boss. It was very unusual. I worked in a very traditional bank, and flexibility was not a priority. It probably didn’t make the top 20 list of what the organization was thinking about. It was more about, you know, keeping things very tight and crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. So anyway, I proposed it, and I asked if I could go to 32 hours a week at 80% pay, and they thought about it, kind of ran up the flagpole, came back to me, said, “We’ll try it, and we’ll see how it works.” And I tell you what, I did everything I humanly could to make sure it was successful for the organization and for me, and so I know I… in fact, my husband will tell you, it just meant I went in on Saturdays or Sundays so that I was ready for Monday.
Because I wanted to make sure that nobody, you know, felt let down or that I missed a beat. And at the time, I was managing a team of people, a very small team, but a team, and I didn’t want them to feel like they weren’t getting what they needed. So on Fridays, I would… we had voicemail back then, I would call it and check all my voicemails throughout the day. But I was still, you know, in the classroom, I was still, like, running around doing the laundry. If there was any doctor’s appointments, my kids had them on Friday afternoons. And it really was a… just gave me a great, I think, quality of life and the balance that I would not have had otherwise. So I’m eternally grateful for it.
Yeah, me too. Mind sort of came up… Interestingly, I was switching roles, although I was actually going back to a CPA firm that I’d worked with before, and at the time, I was starting a new nanny arrangement, and the nanny couldn’t work on Mondays, she had another obligation. And so I was telling my new boss that. I mean, before I actually came to work, I said, “I… you know, I’m ready to come back, but I have to figure out what I’m going to do on Mondays.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you just not work on Mondays?”
And I was like, “Wow, that would be awesome.” And so it was fantastic that that did… that he really suggested it to me, when also, I was in a very traditional workspace, as well, in part of a CPA firm where if anything, it was more about how many hours can you put in. Right?
And also, interesting you talked about voicemail – I also did check my voicemail on Mondays – that was my day – but, you know, we didn’t have remote access back then, or we didn’t have the ability to have emails on our phone, and so I wonder if I tried that now – right? – it would be much more difficult, I think, to not be working on that fifth day when I had such easy access to work. But at the time, it wasn’t as easily acceptable, and that was a good thing for me. I also did the same thing as you, though, on Fridays, boy, did I do everything possible to make sure I wasn’t going to… you know, that I never wanted anyone to say on a Monday, “Where’s JoDee?” or “We can’t do this because JoDee’s not here today.” [Laughs] Right? So…
I went overboard, as well, to make it work for me and them.
Yes, yes. And I think I, too, had a very supportive boss when I started and then I moved into other jobs and I… it was great, because that was really inside the organization. “I work four days a week, and so maybe I’m not the right candidate if it’s important to you that I be there five days a week.” And so I still… I fortunately ended up with more bosses over time that were very supportive of it. And I’ll never forget when I got the raise when I went back to full time. It was a 20% raise and I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I hope I get raises like this…” But it was probably the biggest raise I ever got. I loved it.
[Laughs] Now, I’m curious. I think with some organizations, there might be a fear that, “Oh, if we let Susan do this, everybody’s going to want to do it,” even though I proved that wrong in my story earlier about when nobody wanted to do it. But did that happen at all?
Yes. It’s funny, my boss said that – he calls it EEWOT, at the time, he’d say that Everyone Else Wants One Too, E-E-W-O-T. So that was one of their concerns was that EEWOT was going to happen. “Susan can do it… can do it, why can’t I?” And he said the first question he would ask people is, “So you’re willing to take a 20% pay cut?” And he said most people got up and walked out, so very few people wanted to take a pay cut. And then secondly, he… he said “You better be able to produce the results that she’s producing.” And then they got up and left. So actually, I’m sure there probably were other people, but not that I can think of.
Which goes back once again to saying it doesn’t work for everyone.
Not necessarily everyone wants it. So. Well, interesting to see what might happen, you know, as we talked about, certainly many… many organizations are much more flexible, but I’m still not hearing a whole lot about people working four days a week, so interesting to see if that’ll come into play more.
Yes, I had heard out about Kickstarter, I think they’ve announced in 2022 that they’re going to go to a four day work week, and… I should not say that until I confirm it, but that’s… I think that’s gonna be a company to watch.
Alright, so JoDee, it’s time for our listener question. This question comes from a listener who completed our recertification credit questionnaire after listening to one of our previous episodes. Here it is. “What happens if you have candidates that are tied in qualification? How do you make a hiring decision?”
Well, I love that question, but I think in reality, you know, we make hiring decisions based on lots of different things, right? It might appear on their resume that they have the same number of years experience, or it may be even that they’ve worked at the same company, but in reality, I would think it would be hard to say two candidates had exactly the same qualifications. But even if they did – right? – there’s so many other tools or considerations we can think about. One would be using assessment tools to assess the style of the person versus the style of the person you might be looking for. Right? So you could use assessment tools, you might also consider diversity options, whether that, you know, they went to different colleges or they’re a different race or gender or whatever it might be, to consider whether that would bring positive diversity to your organization. And then obviously, just in communication with them, too, right? How did they respond to your questions? How might their experiences and styles work differently within your organization, as well? Susan, do you have any other thoughts on that?
I think you’re spot on with all of those. The only thing that I might just add is, if you have two people that are just really vying for one role, and in your mind, you really think they’re equal, you’re going to have to pull the trigger, hire one of them, but stay in contact with that second person. You have found a talent that you think could come in here and do the job. Maybe not this job, but there might be something similar that comes along, so I would work at keeping the communication alive with them after I turned them down. I still would do follow up, because I think you’ve… you’re very lucky if you’ve got two people who could be a fit. Don’t let that… the one who doesn’t get that particular job out of your sights.
Love it. In our in the news section in a December 21 article on HRdive.com, they noted three of the top litigation issues expected in 2022. The first, no surprise, COVID and discrimination. Employers who sent employees away from traditional offices during the pandemic have seen a new frontier of discrimination claims. Courts are beginning to see factual circumstances emerge involving coworkers who have never interacted with each other in person, or even in the same physical space as one another, but harassment claims can involve something as simple as a message in a chat box.
Another interesting issue in discrimination, Colorado, which has an equal pay law requiring all public and private employers employing at least one person in Colorado to disclose compensation and benefits in every job posting. This might definitely create some lawsuits. I am interested to follow that in Colorado and see how that plays out.
I think that’s smart. And I know you’ve always been an advocate, everybody should be posting their salaries. You’ve always felt that way. So it’ll be fun to see.
The second one they cite is Wage and Hour law related. Several trends have converged in the Wage and Hour space, including changes in the manner and means in which jobs are performed, and timekeeping systems and pay practices may not be being regularly reviewed or audited. The misclassification of employees as exempt from receiving overtime also continues to be a hot legal issue. Consider the classification of outside sales workers. If outside sales workers have been asked to work remotely rather than going outside and meeting with customers, the employer may need to ensure whether the workers would still be classified as outside sales workers.
And employees working remotely in other states, a topic we’ve discussed before, is an issue that’s really important to be on top of mind of. Are state taxes being properly reported? Are state laws being properly followed? And are employees even reporting whether or not they’re actually working in a different state, which could have tax implications?
Right. The third one is, once again, COVID-19 vaccination and the Wild West. In December, the Biden administration issued three separate regulatory actions aimed at implementing or encouraging COVID-19 vaccination mandates. They include the federal contractor mandate, OSHA’s emergency temporary standard, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services mandate for hospitals and other health care facilities. But the point there, I think, is that I suspect there are more to come on this issue.
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