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Small businesses should consider a four-day workweek this year in a tight labor market

By February 28, 2022No Comments

(This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)

When I bring up the idea of a “ four-day workweek” to my clients, particularly those over age 50, I often get the eye roll. That’s because most small business owners I know think it’s just a way for employees to work only 80% of the time for 100% of the pay. I admit that in some cases, that may be true. But is that such a bad thing?

“It’s not about doing 80% of the work,” Joe O’Connor told me in a recent podcast interview. “This concept is about shifting from time as a measure or as a surrogate for productivity toward a focus on the work that’s actually getting done and what’s being delivered for your business.”

O’Connor’s nonprofit, 4 Day Week Global, helps companies implement four-day workweek programs around the world and then measures their value. “This is not something that’s about paying people for doing less work,” he says. “This is about actually shifting toward a smarter way of working.”

The four-day workweek concept isn’t new. Consumer electronics giant Panasonic recently said it would offer a four-day option to its employees. Microsoft conducted a similar test in Japan and claimed a 40% increase in productivity.

Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter is testing the concept this year. Thirty companies in the United Kingdom are participating in a pilot program to also measure its effectiveness. Iceland conducted a test of the model using 2,500 employees (which is 1% of the country’s working population, the equivalent of 16 million U.S. workers) from 2015 to 2019 and said it was an “overwhelming success.”

Governments in New Zealand, Spain and Singapore are considering their own tests. Even in the U.S. there has been push for federal legislation by a few progressive representatives in Congress to require employers to institute a four-day workweek policy.

Advocates like O’Connor — and some studies — say a four-day workweek can significantly improve productivity. Opponents worry about the cost.

Regardless of how you feel, there’s no arguing that the benefit has created a buzz. And as it grows in popularity, small business owners are going to need to determine whether such a program is right for them.

And it may not be. That’s because some businesses — particularly some service and manufacturing organizations need to ensure that their people are available regardless of the day or time. Some jobs require employees to be on the production floor continuously. Other businesses require a more continuous presence to maintain their output and respond to customer requests.

“Our clients don’t shut down at five o’clock,” says CJ Bachman, chief of operations at digital marketing firm 1SEO Digital in Bristol Borough. “They’re small businesses who are out and about all day. That presents challenges.”

Bachman said the employees at her firm enjoy a great amount of flexibility in their workday and the ability to do a substantial amount of work from home. But they do need to be on call for when clients need help.

“Our clients are demanding, and we have to be able to respond whenever they need,” she said.

1SEO, like other businesses, emphasizes flexibility for their workers as opposed to an official “four-day workweek” policy. And this is not uncommon, particularly for smaller employers.

While many advocates would like to see employees paid for 40 hours even though they’re working a more productive 32 hours, the concept of working “four days” can be difficult to implement.

But its definition can be made more flexible. For example, the practice of working four 10-hour days is not uncommon in health care and emergency services. That way an employee can still get their 40 hours in but still have three days off a week.

“This is something that it requires a certain degree of collective responsibility across the workforce, in order to ensure that they can make this work for the company,” O’Connor said. “We encourage companies not to frame it as a work-life balance policy. You need to frame this as a productivity policy.”

Wendy Smith Born, who co-owns and runs the retail operations at Metropolitan Bakery in Philadelphia, has been using a four-day model for well over a year now. She has found that it’s the right balance for a retail environment, where most workers are hourly, and has also helped her manage vacations, too.

“People who work, either three [eight-hour] shifts or four shifts each week can get the equivalent number of vacation days after being with us a full year,” she said. “My employees say it’s better for their mental health and their productivity, and I think we have to listen to that.”

Smith Born said that her workers, who tend to be younger, want more flexibility in their schedules and need more time off to help balance the stress of their jobs. A recent study from recruiting firm Robert Half supports this. She has also found that her flexible scheduling has helped her recruit hourly workers even in this tight labor environment.

So have I convinced you that a four-day workweek may potentially be a great benefit to offer your employees? But of course, it’s not a benefit that most small business owners like Smith Born can enjoy.

“I don’t work a four-day week,” she said. “But I own a business, and that’s just what I signed up for.”

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