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Employers rethinking five-day workweek

There’s a growing movement by some organizations to rethink the standard five-day, 40-hour workweek that has been around since the New Deal.
Image: man eating at desk
There’s a growing movement by some organizations to rethink the standard five-day, 40-hour workweek that has been around since the New Deal.Tom Grill / Getty Images stock

Bert Martinez, CEO of a business-training firm in Houston, has decided to blow away the five-day workweek for himself and his staff of 28.

Starting next month the entire company is going to work for four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour days, and the company’s workweek will stay that way if productivity and profits stay the same or increase. It’s all part of Martinez’s strategy to take back his personal life, and his general inclination to shake things up at the firm.

“I want to spend more time with my family, and I’m really curious to see if results are going to stay the same,” Martinez said. “Will we lose money or make money? We’ll see what happens.”

Martinez may be onto something. While his experiment may sound unusual, it’s actually part of a growing movement to rethink the standard five-day, 40-hour workweek that has been around in this country since the New Deal.

One larger example of the phenomenon is seen in Utah. In 2008, then-Gov. Jon Huntsman launched the “Working 4 Utah” plan to shift state workers who were putting in five-day weeks to a Monday-through-Thursday, 7 a.m.-to-6 p.m. work schedule. The verdict: Employee satisfaction, energy savings and a boon for the environment.

“I don’t think we have any plans to go back to five days,” said Jeff Herring, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Resource Management. Still, he added that the state is continuing to monitor the new work system to make sure it’s saving money and working both for employees and the public that uses state services.

It’s a radical idea and not without its critics. Utah State Rep. Michael Noel called the initiative “stupid” in a New York Times article last week that said other states are considering following Utah’s lead. Some experts question whether we would ever be able to abandon the five-day grind so entrenched in corporations and society at large.

But others are questioning the very notion of the formal work day.

“We are in fact seeing many more companies willing to be flexible in all areas of the workweek — fewer days, fewer hours per day, some long days and some short days, etc.,” said Allison O'Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps, a staffing and search firm.

The trend is driven more by the bottom line than any desire to improve work-life balance for employees. In the case of Utah, the move to four-day schedules was driven largely by the tough economy and budget issues.

Many companies also shook up their workweeks at least temporarily, implementing steps such as furloughs that sent employees home without pay for a few days.

Today about 34 percent of employers offer some sort of compressed workweek benefit, up from 26 percent in 2008, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. But will these initiatives grow more widespread once the economy accelerates?

“I don’t see it happening,” said Robert Whaples, a professor of economics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He said the traditional five-day, 40-hour week simply has been in place too long.

Whaples said the move to the five-day week began in the 19th century, when a six-day workweek was more standard. Workers got Sunday off for religious reasons, but as the country's affluence grew people wanted more leisure time.

“The kind of jobs they were doing wore them out. It was tough physical labor on farms, in factories and mines,” Whaples said. “It made sense to have time off."

Since then there has been little movement to change the basic five-day week. Calls for change by some working parents represent only a small subset of the population, he said.

The problem, according to Cali Yost, CEO of consulting firm Work+Life Fit Inc., “is that many if not all human resource policies and corporate financial reporting systems are built around and reinforce the inflexible 40 hours, five-days-a-week, in the office model.”

Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist, thinks it goes even deeper.

“The five-day workweek goes back to kindergarten,” Thacker said. “The structure and conditioning people have around the five-day workweek is huge.”

Despite technological advances that should have led to radical changes in the structure of the workweek, she added, “we’re still very early in the curve in terms of how the workplace is changing.”

Some believe we’re actually going backward when it comes to rethinking how and when we work.

“It’s pathetic,” said Nadine Mockler, founder of Flexible Resources Inc., a staffing firm. “Most companies are not allowing flexibility. They want people there, they want face time, they want to make sure work is getting done, and now people are working even longer.”

This is happening, she added, even though providing such flexibility makes the workforce more efficient.

Leigh Steere, co-founder of management research firm Managing People Better, agreed and pointed to a study done by Microsoft in 2005 that found workers who put in 45 hours a week said they were only productive for about three days.

“Employers should be paying based on results delivered and not hours worked,” she said. “Should a person who can deliver a project in two days be paid the same as a person who takes six days to perform the same work?”

While productivity is important, for many four-day advocates it’s more about gaining personal time.

“I’m a better husband and a better father,” said Utah’s Herring about his extra day off. The state has also seen a rise in volunteerism among its workers as a result of the four-day week.

There were some early challenges, including figuring out how to find child care with extended hours for employees who were now working until 6 p.m. Public transportation was another issue. State officials worked with transit authorities to adjust scheduling, and officials put resources into helping working parents find child care options.

Martinez, the CEO from Houston, is hoping his experiment is as successful. The father of five,  including 10-year old twins, is optimistic he can find a better work-life balance.

“We were told that by being connected to the Internet we would get more done and have more time to ourselves and with our family,” he said. “That didn’t happen. Now I’m looking for my own rest and recovery. Let’s see if it makes us more productive too.”