Friday, July 23, 2010

The four-day work week

4-day work week

I’ve long been accused of ‘living to work’.  Nonetheless, I am a strong believer in value of having a 4-day workweek: I’ve lived it, and I (still) miss it.

In the late 1980’s, I went to work for Physio-Control, a Redmond WA medical device company, then recognized as one of the nation’s 100 Best Places to Work.  Led by W. Hunter Simpson, they had adopted a number of innovative workplace policies that made it a congenial and productive place to be.

There were flexible hours, parental leave, continuing education benefits, and (my favorite) free coffee.   The company was one of the first to have a suburban campus (pix below), although one supplier once compared us unfavorably to the cows grazing peacefully in the valley below.

Information about company performance and problems were openly shared and widely discussed.  Quarterly kickoffs and the year-end rush to ship product were all-company events; the University of Washington band might appear if it was an especially good performance.

Production was on the top floor of the plant, reminding people that the company depended on it’s product.  There were no ID badges.

The fiscal year ended on Valentines Day (fitting for a company developing cardiac therapy); the senior managers came to each Team Members office to thank them and to had them a bonus check personally. (The first time that happened, I thought I was about to be fired).

They kept an ‘open-stock’ area where engineers could get parts for their projects without filling out paperwork. There was a full model shop on premises because Hunter thought that the company should always have people who could build real things using lathes and drill presses.

And they had a 4-day work week.

It was still a 40-hour workweek, but arranged as 4 / 10’s, Monday through Thursday. We had to be around for “core hours’, 9 to 4, but could arrange the whole eight however suited us best as individuals and departments.

I typically stay late anyway, so working eight to six it wasn’t a huge adjustment for me. It encouraged putting sustained effort into a project, invaluable when long periods of sustained focus and thought is needed (I was doing programming, data analysis, and research experiments at the time).

Three day weekends were also wonderful.  There was time to shop and do appointments on Friday, rather than squeezing them into breaks from work, and more trips around the Pacific Northwest were possible.  Sunday actually became the intended ‘day of relaxation’ because everything else was done. Life felt more balanced in all respects.

‘Downside was that if I didn’t put a definite finish to things on Thursday, I’d have completely lost the thread of work by the following Monday.  It was hard to schedule meetings outside of core hours, and lunch felt like it came too late (the day really needed two breaks, not one).

But I loved it.

It came to an end in the mid-90’s as new management rotated the whole company back onto the five-eights schedule. It was ostensibly done to ‘better serve our customers’, who couldn’t understand why there was nobody there on Fridays.  In reality, it felt like a country-club to Bain Capital, who bought us from Lilly.

Whatever: it had several immediate effects.

First, the day felt more crammed: what I used to do in ten hours, I now had to do in eight.  The weekend felt more crowded, as I had to do in two days what I used to do in three.  Meetings took up a larger percentage of the workday; doctors and school appointments shifted to lunches and breaks.  Life felt more crowded and compressed, and there was the nagging sense of management taking something away that people resented

As communities and companies try to deal with budget issues, reduce traffic volumes, raise productivity, save energy, reduce turnover, and give workers intangible benefits, the 4-day workweek idea is making a comeback.  North Carolina and Utah are experimenting with it, along with some schools and companies.  It’s not for everyone, for  every job, or for all industries.  But I think it makes sense for knowledge workers and, like telecommuting and flexible hours, should be part of how we configure our workplaces.

along with free coffee.


Jul said...

A four-hour work week fits my natural working patterns better, too. I'd rather work longer hours for fewer days and have more days of leisure.

These days I am fortunate to get to completely set my own schedule, and I still work in spurts like that - several days working almost every waking hour, followed by several days of completely goofing off.

Dave Hampton said...

Thanks, Jul, I agree completely. I'd lke to evolve my work hours towards that ideal, but it just seems like there's too much to do to make that practical right now.

For example, I'm doing my end of month books this afternoon (a Saturday), which feels wrong. But the week was busy, travel and meetings, an it's hard to see how to do it otherwise unless I get a lot better at telling people 'no or have money to hire help.