While the concept of the four-day workweek may be a new business trend, such arrangements may not be possible for everyone, especially deskless workers.
O.C. Tanner, an employee recognition company, attempted a four-day workweek with their 450 factory workers, seeing if they could offer them the same kind of flexibility being enjoyed by the company’s office staff.
While it didn’t quite work out, Gary Peterson, executive vice president of supply chain and production at O.C. Tanner, said the company learned a lot about their business in the process, and showed their workers that they listened and cared about them.
Their experience can also show how other companies might try different kinds of work schedules too, for all their employees.
Giving the four-day workweek a try
O.C. Tanner had attempted a four-day workweek with production team workers about decade ago, Peterson said, and it didn’t work. Still, given that the company’s desked workers had more flexibility in work arrangements, O.C. Tanner didn’t want deskless workers to feel left out or ignored when they asked if it would be possible for them too.
“If I had just said to all the people who were asking, ‘Look, we investigated it 10 years ago, it doesn’t work, let it go,’ that just doesn’t fly,” said Peterson. So they investigated it again.
First, management looked at the current schedules for their 450 factory workers. They had a day shift, which worked eight-hour shifts, Monday to Friday, and a night shift, which worked nine-hour shifts Monday to Thursday and a four hour shift on Friday. “We like to get our second shift home on Friday nights at 6pm,” he said.
Their best chance at a four-day workweek, Petersen thought, was moving to four 10-hour shifts per week — with some employees working Monday to Thursday and others Tuesday to Friday.
They ran into a few problems. First, no one wanted the Tuesday to Friday shift, but O.C. Tanner needed Fridays covered because they ship product five days a week. Second, the day and night shift typically overlapped by 10 minutes. “There’s not enough equipment that I could run a shift another two hours,” he said. Asking workers on the night shift to stay an hour later wasn’t well received either. Trying to shift to a four-day workweek also affected overtime options, and meant people would be coming in on a fifth day anyway.
There were also safety concerns with having workers stretch to 10-hour workdays. “It’s a physical job. We’re on our feet, we’re working, we’re handling products, and it takes a physical toll,” he said. The company already knew that on the ninth hour of night shift work, “we really have to be mindful of safety and ergonomics,” he said. “Going another hour beyond that, I’d be worried about everybody’s safety.”
After two months of trying, they went back to their previous system.
The value of trying something new
But Peterson doesn’t think it was a waste of effort. Workers appreciated that management listened to their request, and put hours into trying to map out alternative work schedules. When they saw it wasn’t working, for both the sake of the company or their own safety, they knew at least their bosses had listened, and tried.
That sends a clear message about company culture, said Jessica Kriegel, chief scientist of workplace culture at Culture Partners, and that a company is willing listen to employee concerns and try something different. “Innovation is failing fast. If you don’t fail fast, you’re never innovating, and obviously they’ve done something innovative,” she said.
While not the right situation for a business like O.C. Tanner, companies can also try other kinds of work arrangements for employees who need to be on-site, without needing to reinvent the wheel. “The four-day workweek is one model. It’s arbitrary,” she said. Nurses, firefighters and flight attendants already work schedules where they’re on and off a specific number of days, and could be used for other kinds of essential or in-person jobs, where appropriate.
For any company in a similar situation who wants to try a four-day workweek or some other kind of work-hour arrangement, Peterson said, “Look before you leap.” Managers should understand the logistics of such changes, and whether or not shifting when workers work will affect business demands. “It’s worth looking at,” he added, and that in a lot of ways, flexibility is “a new kind of cash. It’s what people want. They want to feel there’s flexibility.”