July 14, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

Starting in August, roughly 17,000 employees of the state of Utah will switch from five-day to four-day workweeks. Essential services like police and public schools won’t be affected, but an estimated 1,000 of the state’s 3,000 buildings will be closed on Fridays. The state expects to save $3 million, and affected workers will pay for fewer commutes, which have gotten pricier as gas prices have risen.

It’s a smart way to save energy, but how will workers deal with the new 7am – 6pm workdays? For anyone doing a job that’s very demanding, either mentally or physically, longer workdays might cause excessive strain. For the many parents (and caretakers of elderly relatives) who’ve carefully scheduled their routines around the hours of a school, day care, or babysitter, rearranging schedules will be challenging. The success of Utah’s plan depends largely on how supportive and flexible the state is in addressing these kinds of concerns.

Other states are investigating shorter work weeks and telecommuting, without taking such drastic steps. Daniel Petty reports for Stateline.org (via SEJ Tip Sheet):

High gasoline prices led Kentucky and South Carolina to offer compressed workweeks to a handful of its state employees this summer. A smattering of other states — Arkansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Vermont among them — are considering expanding existing programs to more state agencies.

Some state universities and community colleges are moving to four-day work weeks for the summer, and the trend has emerged in numerous city, county and other local governments.

Although experience so far is limited, there are a couple of positive reports:
In Kentucky, 15 of 33 eligible employees in the secretary of state’s office are now working with staggered four-day workweeks after the program was introduced in mid-June and will remain in effect for several months as a trial. Productivity has increased and office morale is higher, and some are using the extra time off to work second jobs because of a salary freeze initiated several years ago, said Les Fugate, deputy assistant secretary of state.

In a recent study, researchers from Brigham Young University showed that city employees in Spanish Fork, Utah, who work four 10-hour days a week reported less at-home conflict, which the workers said increased efficiency at work and job satisfaction.

In these cases, it sounds like employees were able to choose to work the four-day weeks. That’s probably better for employee satisfaction, but it reduces the savings that are possible – you can’t shut down 1,000 buildings on Fridays if half the employees are still showing up.

I used to work for a nonprofit organization that made the switch from a five-day, 35-hour workweek to a four-day, 32-hour one several years ago, and is still going strong on a Monday-Thursday schedule. Employees love having Fridays off (even if they sometimes spend them at their desks getting caught up), and generally see the problems – not having anyone to answer Friday press calls, for instance – as being outweighed by the benefits.

I doubt that my former employer’s experience is very applicable to Utah, though. For one thing, we only tacked one extra hour onto our workdays, for a 9-6 schedule (compared to Utah’s 7-6). No one was doing manual labor, or emotionally exhausting work like investigating reports of child abuse (one of the examples in Petty’s article). Also, we saw the shift to the shorter work week as a benefit to offset a salary crunch in the wake of 9/11. Utah workers are getting the benefit of fewer commutes, and some might reduce their childcare expenses, but the pain of getting to work at 7am might offset those gains.

It will be instructive to see how things turn out in Utah. In the meantime, now is a great time to implement energy-saving measures in office buildings and increase public transportation options. A few years from now, going to work could be much less energy-intensive, even if we’re still showing up five days a week.

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