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More workers find a four-day workweek is within reach

The pandemic started a revolution in attitudes and more employers are considering how to help workers avoid burnout.

The factory floor at MxD, 1415 N. Cherry St., where staffers have the option of a four-day workweek.
The factory floor at MxD, 1415 N. Cherry St., where staffers have the option of a four-day workweek.
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The “Great Resignation” has gotten plenty of attention — the phenomenon of people leaving the workforce during COVID-19’s upheaval. But it might not be the most fundamental change in people’s work habits.

What about the four-day workweek? It’s out there and gaining a foothold in places such as Iceland and Japan. In the United States, there’s been no rush, but employers are dabbling with it as part of a greater embrace of flexibility in schedules and work location. With labor in high demand, a four-day schedule could go mainstream.

It’s being offered as an option for the 50 employees at MxD, a Goose Island research center for advanced manufacturing. CEO Chandra Brown said it’s been a remarkable change just since she took over in early 2019 when five days at work was the unquestioned norm.

Once COVID-19 hit, her staff, which works with the Defense Department and many industrial companies, worked long hours tackling new challenges. “We worried a lot about burnout,” she said.

Being data-driven, MxD leaders ordered a survey of its workers. Brown said 73% supported the concept of the four-day week, so they started a pilot program in September that will be reviewed early next year. But Brown said productivity has been excellent, with 30% of the employees opting for four, 10-hour days. The rest do the standard five, eight-hour days.

To show there’s no favoritism attached to either choice, Brown said she’s following the four-day schedule, modified as needed when important matters require attention, while MxD President Federico Sciammarella works five days.

Other employers are mulling or have implemented similar policies. They know people are stressed out from months of COVID-19 trauma, tensions in race and politics, and just plain disruptions of routine.

“There’s a lot more openness to flexibility on the part of employers and a lot more demand for it on the part of employees,” said Carol Sladek, partner at Aon who’s in charge of the work-life and time off consulting practice.

Flexibility here potentially means a four-day workweek but also working from home, which many companies now accept as a permanent part of at least a hybrid schedule. An Aon survey of more than 1,000 companies last April found 87% are considering, updating or sticking with a remote work policy.

Chandra Brown, CEO at MxD.
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Of those opting for a four-day workweek, some let staff pick the day off, Sladek said, while others are methodical, assigning days off according to department or function. She said most don’t have the option of closing the business one added day out of the week.

When the pandemic hit, people were sent home abruptly with their laptops, and supervisors wondered if they’d get any work out of them. Technology that didn’t exist until a few years ago helped immensely, Sladek said, and employers discovered the output remained strong.

“That trust component is really key to moving things forward as well, understanding that we’ve got multiple generations in our workforce. People are looking for different things,” she said.

Tech-oriented startups and small businesses are prominent in the four-day trend because they are the quickest to experiment.

Chicago’s Topstep Trading offers a four-day option to employees. Wonderlic in Vernon Hills, which helps companies hire, started a four-day, 32-hour week during the summer and liked it enough to make it permanent in October.

Conversely, auto insurance provider Clearcover gave workers the break during the summer, then revised it. It now offers “Focus Fridays,” which are supposed to be meeting-free days with time for personal errands. Clearcover’s executive vice president of people, Vikki Caruso, said the schedule gives workers flexibility that improves mental health and increases productivity.

Four- or even three-day workweeks have been used for a long time in manufacturing and health care. Such scheduling figured in the recent settlement of a strike at Chicago’s Nabisco plant, and Amazon lets people choose schedules at hubs around the Chicago area. But anything less than a five-day schedule has been rare in white-collar settings and elsewhere.

MxD’s Brown said she expects four-day schedules to become more popular, but the most common change will be a fully hybrid work environment. She said skeptical bosses will find that productivity isn’t a problem, and that they’ll need to adapt as recruiting and keeping people get harder.

“It’s a small price to pay for the satisfaction, the happiness, the productivity in the workforce that you need,” she said.

Sladek has a similar take. “When employees have the ability to juggle the pressures of their lives and work the hours they want to work at the places they want to work, there’s a lot of gratitude and a lot of engagement involved with that,” she said. Contentment means loyalty.

It raises questions about that free time and its economic implications. Does it mean more do-it-yourselfers running up a tab at Home Depot? More traveling or streaming shows? More motoring to the lakehouse in emissions-free Teslas and Rivians?

Watch out. We might need a second job to pay for freedom from the first.