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  • Hannah Brown

The Four-Day Workweek

Many of the clients that I've worked with over the years have asked, "Why aren't my staff willing to stay past 6pm? Or if they are willing to do so, why do they then ask for compensatory time off?" "This wasn't the norm for us," they say. We worked 10+ hour days, day-after-day and did so probably with some grumbling, but also knowing that if we were decidedly unhappy and unwilling to live with these hours, we would likely need to leave the design industry. The working norm that I was brought into in the early 2000's was "Design doesn't happen on a 9-5 schedule."

When I hear these observations and opinions, I empathize with both sides of the story. On the one hand, Principals and Project Managers are rightly concerned about meeting client deadlines and demands. From a manger's point of view, any time worked outside of a 40 hours has a high potential to be profitable or to be seen as dedication to the project, the deadline, correcting one's mistakes, or learning a new skill. On the other hand, I place a high value on quality of life outside of work - the desire to be with loved ones, cook a meal, or go to a fitness class. And as to the 9-5 schedule comment, I would recall that I have rarely found creative inspiration staring at a blank paper, canvas or screen. I have found it while on a walk or a swim or while talking with friends and colleagues.

As a bit of background, I worked 2 jobs for 6 years to afford to live on starting salaries in Boston and the Bay Area. I know that my outside work as a live-in caretaker to young children was frowned upon by my employers. In fact, when I asked for an increase in pay after 2 years with one firm, I was told that I'd have to work more hours for more money, effectively earning the same hourly rate. The heart of the matter is that working as a caretaker, I was provided with a safe home, healthy meals, and emotional rewards beyond my belief. That is to say, I'm very familiar with 10+ hour workdays, 6+ days a week, but I did so in a way that met my financial and well-being needs. It also put me in a position where I was one of those employees flying out the door at 5:30pm, unavailable after hours for client demands.

When I've heard complaints about the narrowly defined schedules of staff, I have often in the past few years, replied that I feel that we are pushing towards a shorter work week or shorter work days. "In our future, the 35 hour work week will be a norm," I have declared in many client meetings. Two years ago, this comment was often met with no enthusiasm, a blank stare, or a change of subject dismissive of the comment. This past month, clients are starting to ask questions about the shorter work week for a number of reasons and I believe we are coming to a time to embrace the 4-day workweek or the 7-hour workday.

As we are faced with the fact that this pandemic is not going away anytime in the near future, work from home is our new norm and the project pipeline is uncertain. Many firms are looking at a slowing down of project work and also a drop in employee productivity and engagement. We are isolated from one another, uncertain about the future, and all extremely stressed. A reduced workweek may be what many firms need to weather the fall and winter and may be the balm that employees need to concentrate more on physical well-being, pursuing restorative practices or hobbies, and on family and close friends. In turn, I foresee and hope that the reduced time we are spending on work is more productive and rewarding.

In California, the EDD's Work Sharing program facilitates a transition to a reduced workweek for employees and acts as an alternative to lay offs. In exchange for a reduced schedule across all or most of the staff, the Work Sharing program supplies employees with unemployment benefits. In a typical scenario, rather than laying off a few individuals, all or most of the staff are placed on a 32-hour workweek with a reduction of salary to 80% of the original. Schedule reductions are flexible within a set of parameters outlined by EDD. Work Sharing requires that the firm continue to maintain health care benefits, a critical component during a pandemic. The firm would also reduce PTO accruals by a matching percentage, which helps reduce some overhead burden at a time when long vacations are not possible. Work Sharing is a significant amount of paperwork but the benefits outweigh the challenges. (Note that any employee whose workweek and salary are reduced is eligible for unemployment benefits outside of Work Sharing, but the burden of paperwork is on the employee and medical benefits may need to be COBRA'd if the typical workweek slips below 30 hours/week.)

Knowing that we are in this for the long haul, Work Sharing may give the opportunity to try out a reduced workweek for at least a year. After that time, the employer may no longer be eligible for the program, but this should give plenty of time to evaluate the long term efficiency and benefits of a reduced workweek. The shorter workweek will allow us to retain more employees for the long term economic disruption beyond the pandemic that is likely to ripple through the AEC for the coming years. And the financial concern that a desk is very expensive to maintain for part-time employees, well, I think few of us are going back to a desk 5-days a week. I hope that we will see that working smarter and not longer is a win-win for all.

For more on the 4 day workweek and its various permutations, SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) has published a comprehensive guide to the benefits and drawbacks of the reduced workweek schedule.

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