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The Four-Day Workplace Week

As Brad Plumer says, normalizing a four-day workweek, at least for particular jobs, makes a certain amount of some sense. It's cheaper for some employers. It uses less resources. Workers like it. But the big argument, in this time of energy concerns, is that "some 106 million Americans drive to work alone each day, an average of 16 miles each way. Cutting out one workday's worth of commuting would not only lower U.S. oil imports by 5 to 10 percent, it would also prevent thousands of traffic fatalities, as well as cut down on the costs of road maintenance, since people tend to drive less on weekends. And workers would see a real income boost by saving on gas. "

But a lot of the arguments that apply to the four-day workweek also apply to letting people work at home. Just as you can imagine a four-day workweek, you can also imagine a four-day workplace week. Friday, workers would work from home. They would still have access to e-mail. They would still be near a phone. But they wouldn't have to commute. The employer wouldn't have to run air conditioning or electricity or bring in a cleaning service. They would sleep a little later because they wouldn't have to prepare to go to work and they would make lunch in their kitchen and be able to pick their kids up from school.

There are definitely advantages to an office environment. Being near other people and seeing their faces and going out to lunch and talking to your boss have real benefits. But are they so dominant that we should be in an office environment during every moment that we are paid to work? It's hard, in an age of e-mail and cell phones and Gchat, to see why.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 28, 2009; 3:31 PM ET
Categories:  Economic Policy  
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While it may be true that people drive less on normal 2-day weekends, would that hold for 3-day weekends? I know we can't extrapolate from what happens on holiday 3-day weekends currently. Maybe the evidence doesn't currently exist to answer one way or the other. But the reasonable possibility is that people will treat these weekends enough like holidays and do more driving than Plumber is predicting.

Posted by: JonathanTE | July 28, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Interestingly, my friend has software installed on her laptop so that her employer knows exactly when she's active and what she's doing. It seems like a cruel, but pretty effective way to make sure employees are just as productive at home.

Posted by: CarlBentham | July 28, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

We are way past the time for serious discussions about work sharing. The signal was sent after the first couple of years of flat worker income. We need to face the fact that we have more workers than jobs, and that's not a temporary condition. Those jobs are gone to globablization, technology change, and rapacious corporate management skimming from the workers to pay executive pay and bonuses that are impossible to justify on either competitive or economic basis.

This job sharing, of course, will lower GDP and average earnings, but soften the blow of essentially no jobs at all for the young (18-30) and those over 45 (but less than 63).

The job sharing could be tiered so younger and older workers work perhaps 25 hours a week and mid career workers get 30-35 hrs.

The alternate is not pretty: millions of workers nearly permanently not part of the workforce. Of such conditions is social instability birthed.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 28, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Well, for one thing, at my office I have a very nice, ergonomically designed desk, chair, and workspace. There's a powerful computer, good-sized monitor, and phone system (plus all the other odds and ends like a printer, copier, fax, office supplies, etc). It's all designed for efficient work and is very comfortable. I'm not at all interested in investing my own $$$ to set up a home workspace when my employer has already done so for me.

Plus, why should I have to? It's my home. I don't want my work to intrude there any more than it already does.

Posted by: Sprezzatura | July 28, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

"Being near other people and seeing their faces and going out to lunch and talking to your boss have real benefits. But are they so dominant that we should be in an office environment during every moment that we are paid to work? It's hard, in an age of e-mail and cell phones and Gchat, to see why."

I think in the software industry, the benefits of telecommuting have been shown to be way overblown. Basically, unless you are working on something that doesn't involve other people at all (like, say, straight-up coding some new feature), you're not going to be very productive (or you'll make the people who rely on you less productive). This is especially true with Agile software development, which stresses close physical togetherness of a team on a daily basis.

Which isn't to say that people should never work from home; people should, and do. But there's definitely a trade-off going on there between short-term productivity and worker happiness.

Also, somewhat related: I'm reading Richard Florida's "Who's Your City?", which seems to poke a pretty big hole in the notion that communications technology renders physical location irrelevant. I mean, if email, cellphones, and IM'ing were really any kind of substitute for physical presence, then you'd expect there to be a flattening of tech jobs--but in reality, they are incredibly geographically concentrated. And this proximity in fact seems to drive economic productivity. So, if this is true, I would think whatever benefits accrue from people being in the same city should also accrue from them being in the same office, no?

Posted by: thedavidmo | July 28, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

As an attorney I've been pushing this for years. Most of my correspondence is by phone and email, and most of my research is done through my internet connection. Having one or two days a week of telecommuting is a great way to save resources and have a happier workforce, and since you're still in the office dealing with people a majority of the time, it's not like you lose all contact.

Posted by: etdean1 | July 28, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

A better way to put my point is that the marginal benefit of that day working from home is much greater than the marginal loss of a day around your co-workers, since it's only a day or two a week. That's why a shortened office week is a much better idea than the "flat economy" concept where location has no effect on employment.

Posted by: etdean1 | July 28, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Telecommuting is a great idea, as long as you don't rely on anyone else in your team, or working IT to deliver access to documents etc stored on your employer's network.

By contrast, I suspect that a four day working week would be an excellent idea.

Posted by: albamus | July 29, 2009 5:05 AM | Report abuse

I think the key is flexibility based on the employee and the job function to maximize both employee satisfaction and job performance. My office has a number of staff members who operate remotely (from home offices). The data entry staff are probably the best example of employees whose jobs can be easily done at home. We provide them with a PC, printer, and a cell phone.

In my current situation, I would not want to work at home because my home is very small and like Sprezzatura, I don't want my work invading my home any more than it already does. My commute is also via train, so there is no driving. I don't think anyone is suggesting that telework be required of anyone who doesn't want it though. I telecommuted at a previous job that involved more data analysis and time spent thinking, and I found that I was often more productive at home since there were fewer distractions.

One potential problem of flexible working arrangements is the strain on support staff. At my previous office, employees could work from home sometimes and could work a variety of staggered shifts. There was only one IT person and one Facilities person though, and we were expected to help people even when they were working outside of business hours for their own convenience. That just leads to increased employee frustration on both sides.

If a 4 day work week was implemented in a given office, it would be important to decide up front how the needs of staff working the extra 2 hours on each of the 4 days would be met as well as the needs of the people working the 5th day if the support staff went on a 4 day schedule.

I wonder how much the expense of providing health-care for employees prevents businesses from being willing to have a larger workforce of part-time employees. I know that I would be willing to work for, say, 75% of my current pay if I could work 30 hours a week instead of 40, but I need health-care and PT jobs don't usually provide that.

Posted by: dc-erica | July 29, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

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