Alternative Work Schedules: Recent Research & Practice

One of the interesting phenomena in the world of innovation is how something old can become new again. This is certainly the case with alternative work schedules. While technically not a new program, alternative work schedules, such as the four-ten hour workweek, have seen a recent resurgence. With the cost of motor fuels reaching new heights during the summer of 2008, many employees and organizations started to wonder if there were better ways to structure the workweek to lessen the economic impact of these rising energy costs. Additionally, the recent economic downturn has increased the fiscal pressures facing local governments and the importance of finding efficiencies in governmental operations. One frequently suggested alternative is the 4/10 workweek, as employees can decrease their travel cost by 20 percent, creating an immediate cost savings for the employee, along with potential benefits for organizations and citizens.

ARTICLE | Jan 22, 2010

By Chyleen A. Arbon, Rex L. Facer II, and Lori L. Wadsworth - Romney Institute of Public Management, Brigham Young University

One of the interesting phenomena in the world of innovation is how something old can become new again. This is certainly the case with alternative work schedules. While technically not a new program, alternative work schedules, such as the four-ten hour workweek, have seen a recent resurgence. With the cost of motor fuels reaching new heights during the summer of 2008, many employees and organizations started to wonder if there were better ways to structure the workweek to lessen the economic impact of these rising energy costs. Additionally, the recent economic downturn has increased the fiscal pressures facing local governments and the importance of finding efficiencies in governmental operations. One frequently suggested alternative is the 4/10 workweek, as employees can decrease their travel cost by 20 percent, creating an immediate cost savings for the employee, along with potential benefits for organizations and citizens.

For many years, employers have sought to improve employee productivity and work environments. Evidence has shown that activities and experiences outside the workplace can influence employee experiences and productivity within the work domain. Research suggests that employees often experience work-family conflict, when the demands of work life spill over into their family life, or when family life demands spill over into work life. Increased levels of work-family conflict can decrease productivity, absenteeism, and turnover, in addition to increasing stress. These outcomes are detrimental to individuals and to the organizations in which they work.

Greater demands have been placed on workers in today’s workplace. The number of work hours has increased in recent years, along with work responsibilities for the average employee. In addition, there has been an increase of dual-income and single-parent families. For this reason, workers have greater responsibilities for family schedules and activities. Even those who are part of a traditional family seek more opportunities to spend time with family and friends outside the workplace.

Previous generations typically show greater loyalty to their organization and are more likely to accept the benefits the organization offers. In particular, the baby boomers instigated longer work hours and found self-fulfillment from their work experiences. In contrast, members of Generations X and Y do not have that same allegiance to their organizations.

They are more likely to look for interesting work, or work that allows them to have an interesting life. They have a strong desire to work hard and play hard, and seek opportunities to have both a successful, fulfilling work life and home life. This is illustrated by recent research suggesting that some employees would choose additional time off over an increase in income.

In response to this greater emphasis on work-life balance by employees, many organizations are looking for ways to assist their employees in attaining that balance. One common strategy is alternative work arrangements, which include flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, and a compressed workweek.

In the article "Alternative Work Schedules and Work-Family Balance" published in Review of Public Personnel Administration in June 2008, we examined the effects of implementing a compressed workweek (four ten-hour days) for employees in city government. We looked particularly at the employees’ experience with the 4/10 workweek, along with their job satisfaction and levels of work-family conflict.

Employees working the 4/10 workweek reported lower levels of work-family conflict than their counterparts working a traditional schedule. The employees also reported that the alternative schedule increased their productivity and their ability to serve the citizens.

As a follow-up to this study, we recently finished surveying 150 human resource directors in cities with populations larger than 25,000 to assess their experience with alternative work schedules. Our analysis suggests that over half of cities offer some form of alternative work schedules, with compressed workweeks and flextime as the most commonly offered alternative work schedules (AWSs). Most cities with a compressed workweek schedule offer it as an optional schedule.

While compressed work schedules are the most prominent alternative work schedule offered, the 4/10 schedule is the most common type of AWS. Over 19 percent of cities offer the 4/10 as the only type of compressed workweek available to their employees, while slightly more than 10 percent offer only the 9/80 (eighty hours over nine working days). Additionally, nearly 13 percent of cities offer some combination of alternative work schedules to their employees.

The human resource directors reported that the most common benefits from AWSs to their organizations were improved employee morale (63.5 percent of cities), improved work-family balance (54.1 percent), improved customer service (45.9 percent), and increased employee productivity (41.2 percent). In addition, they reported cost savings for the city due to decreased overtime and overhead costs. Several HR directors suggest that offering an alternative work schedule has improved their ability to attract talented employees and decrease absenteeism.

HR directors also reported organizational drawbacks to alternative work schedules. The most frequently reported drawback was difficulty with scheduling, particularly with meetings between those who work a 4/10 and those who are on the traditional schedule (38.8 percent). The next most frequently cited drawback was decreased face time for the employee (23.5 percent). The other drawbacks reported (decreased morale and productivity and increased absenteeism, customer service complaints, and cost) were each reported by fewer than 10 percent of the HR directors. None of these drawbacks suggest a death knell for the 4/10 workweek. It simply means that managing schedules and career opportunities for employees will be important factors to address as organizations offer and manage alternative work schedules.

While the consequences of fiscal stress might be an important impetus for looking at alternative work schedules such as the 4/10 schedule, it will be critical for organizations to think carefully about any implementation strategy to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks. This will require more research as we seek to better understand the implications of these and other organizational arrangements.

We are currently heading up a broad research initiative to address these issues. For example, there is a need for more comparative research in other organizational settings. We recently started collecting data from large private sector firms on their AWS practices as a step in this effort. Additionally, we need to better understand how AWSs impact employees. We are expanding our employee surveys in a range of organizations with AWSs (e.g., cities across the United States and the State of Utah, which went to a mandatory 4/10 in August). In the employee surveys there are a whole range of issues we are exploring, ranging from work-family balance issues to how employees have altered their commuting patterns to understanding what employees are doing on their extra day off. We are also working with several organizations that are exploring AWS (local governments, private firms, and nonprofit organizations) on how the implementation will work in their organization. Finally, in addition to perception data on how AWSs impact organizations and employees, we need more work on how we measure the impacts in a replicable manner. Overall, there continue to be many questions about alternative work schedules. We are hopeful that our research will help us answer many of those questions.

 

For more detailed research findings, see Rex L. Facer II and Lori L. Wadsworth, "Alternative Work Schedules and Work-Family Balance: A Research Note,"

The findings from the most recent research will be forthcoming in ICMA’s

Review of Public Personnel Administration 28 (2): 166-77; 2008.Municipal Year Book 2009.

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