The Four-Day Workweek Now Wrecking Innovation at a Company Near You

By Kris Dunn

Oct. 14, 2008

Here’s a rule of thumb for all you capitalists working undercover as HR pros in corporate America: If your local, state or federal government is leading the charge to implement a seemingly progressive workplace policy, don’t rush to be included in the “me too” camp.

    In fact, when you get the brochure for the “government best practices seminar,” run like hell.

   As an example of such a policy, I give you the four-day workweek for exempt, salaried employees. I understand that nonexempt, hourly employees are going to work a certain number of hours, then go home. For hourly workers, the four-day workweek is a simple exercise in scheduling production and ensuring availability for customers.

   The four-day workweek for exempt professionals is different, and it makes sense only if you don’t think about it too hard. Here’s the spin: We’ll work smarter, not harder, enhance work/life balance through organizational design and improve the morale of exempt workers. All this will be accomplished by chopping a calendar day off the workweek that we’ve carried over from the industrial age.

   Listen to the logic, and you can fill up a buzzword bingo card with the catchphrases. As the gifted poet Flavor Flav once said, “Don’t believe the hype.

   Before I go off on a rant, allow me to be fair and balanced in presenting the reported positives of the four-day workweek. The City of Birmingham, Alabama (headquarters of the HR Capitalist and Fistful of Talent), recently made a voluntary switch to a four-day workweek (similar to many other municipalities are across the U.S.) for exempt and nonexempt employees, and the Birmingham News reports the benefits include improved employee absenteeism and reduced fuel costs for the city and employees alike.

Still not convinced? Consider these hard stats from the Magic City, as Birmingham calls itself:

  • The four-day workweek saves money for the city. Birmingham offered statistics showing that the city consumed 5,581 fewer gallons of diesel fuel and 13,669 fewer gallons of unleaded fuel in July compared with June, a net savings for the month of more than $73,000. Annualize the run rate and the city is projected to save $885,000 on fuel over the course of a year.

  •  The four-day workweek saves money for employees. Birmingham also projects the 2,467 employees who work four-day weeks could save as much as $513,136 in personal fuel costs over the course of a year. The math is based on a 20-mile average daily commute in a 20-mile-per-gallon personal vehicle, with gas at $4 a gallon.

   I know what you’re thinking: How can you argue with stats like that?

Easily. The early statistics from the city of Birmingham point to raw savings, almost solely focused on fuel usage reductions for the city and employees alike. What the stats don’t tell you is whether the city reduced services to save fuel. What the stats can’t tell you is whether results, innovation and creativity are negatively affected by this practice over time.

Here’s why you should think twice before implementing a four-day workweek that includes your exempt workforce:

1. Results are replaced by time. When we think about developing a performance culture in our organizations, most of us say we value results over time spent at work. For exempt-level positions, that’s the way it should be. Unfortunately, if you look behind the rhetoric and talking points, you’ll find many of us reinforcing the old industrial model of clocking in and clocking out. Office hours and face time are still the norm. We criticize people who don’t work like us (I’m here at 7:30 p.m. and Tom’s out of here at 5:15. What’s up with that?”) or don’t follow the company norm, oftentimes refusing to look at the output of those who work “differently.”

If you choose to implement a four-day workweek, you’re sending the classic message that you value time over results for your exempt employees. Some people can get their objectives knocked out in 40 hours, some need 60. Put the four-day workweek in, and you’re sending an institutional message to your salaried workers that your organization expects 40 hours rather than continuous effort until their objectives are met.

2. Driving for high performance becomes almost impossible. When you replace a focus on results with a focus on time, performance management becomes increasingly difficult. At the macro level, you’re limited in the conversations you can have related to overall contributions and results. After all, you replaced a focus on results with one focused on time. As a result, when you push for higher overall performance and nudge your talent to exceed expectations, you’re going to hear the following: “Man, I’d love to do that, but there just aren’t enough hours in the week”.
As for the increased performance you need to make your department work: Don’t worry, you can always request additional budgeted headcount to get it done. Good luck with that one.

3. By implementing a four-day workweek and placing an emphasis on face time, you’ve discounted the creativity and maturity of your employees. Think about it. You’ve mandated one solution and one work schedule, rather than allowing employees to find what works best for them. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have office hours. I get the need for people to be seen on regular schedules. But if you truly want results in your organization, you’ve got to provide the vision to your people on what the objectives are, then allow them to get their groove on in a way that unlocks their potential.

Sally doesn’t like to work the same way as Johnny. By making them work under identical conditions, you’re guaranteeing one thing: They won’t meet their collective potential. Loosen up and let them figure it out, individually and with each other as a team.

4. Innovation isn’t scheduled. There’s a reason HP was founded in a garage, Yahoo was launched in a trailer. And there’s a couple of kids today in an RV with no tires cooking up the technology that will ultimately make Google a dinosaur. Innovation can’t be scheduled. Your best and brightest need a lab that is flexible enough to give them the tools they need, but allows them to work how and when they see fit. By providing this, you’ll maximize the ability of your employees to innovate.

Instead of focusing on the four-day workweek, loosen your iron grip on face time, enhance how you measure performance in your organization, and let go. Allow people to telecommute. Offer flexible hours as long as the customer (internal and external) gets served. Measure how people are doing every couple of months.

Manage by results and manage by objectives. Just don’t manage by counting hours. All you’ll get from that is less of lots of things, including engagement, passion, creativity and innovation.

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

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