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December 2012: Rebuilding America's Infrastructure

Alternative Workweeks: Productivity vs. Employee Benefit

By Joyce P. Lorick

Public agency managers face increasingly limited public funds with demands for increased accountability and greater pressures for transparency of choices for employee work schedules. As a result, alternative work schedules (AWS) have become increasingly popular. It is widely thought that an AWS increases productivity due to higher employee satisfaction and morale, but limited research found by LA Consulting concludes that AWS generally function to the benefit of the employee with little to no documented improvement in productivity.

Research conducted in Utah by Wadsworth, Facer & Arbon (2010) shows that five days per week/eight hours per day (5/8) has been the standard in the United States for many years. AWS have taken many forms, including a variety of extended daily work hours with compressed work weeks to telecommuting. Each presents unique productivity challenges. In public works, the most popular AWS are the compressed work week schedules such as four days per week/10 hours per day (4/10).

If a public works department implements an AWS, the 4/10 at a 6:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. schedule shows considerably more time (6 percent) in both twilight and peak hours (47.7 percent) than other schedules, which would most likely affect both work efficiencies and public impact. Twilight and peak traffic work hours vary in the United States based on locations within time zones. By extending work hours, more work time is done during twilight and peak traffic.

Although current research (Lingard, Brown, Bradley, Bailey & Townsend, 2007; Wadsworth et al., 2010) conducted in the United States and abroad suggests that productivity is maybe improved by implementing a 4/10, that research is based on qualitative data that is centered on employee and human resource interviews and opinion surveys. This has left a gap in the research available to prove the link between AWS and economically improved productive outputs.

In select cases, productivity and cost efficiencies can be realized. In particular, large construction projects that require extensive job set up and tear down can benefit from AWS. Longer days on such projects can result in reduced delays in the work effort, resulting in enhanced productivity as recorded by a study in Illinois (1993).

While the lack of quantitative performance measures hinders a transparent evaluation, the benefits of the AWS option positively impacts employees in a meaningful way. Employees enjoy more days off, can achieve a more balanced work/family life, can reduce transportation costs, and seek additional employment or pursue a hobby or passion.

Qualitative recorded employee drawbacks to an AWS included longer workdays, family interaction issues, lack of daily daylight for certain tasks, and family schedule conflicts. Other difficulties include a lack of supervisor coverage, a decrease in face time between management and employees, a decrease in productivity, reduced employee morale for some staff, and friction between those employees with and without the option of an AWS.


Employees favor a 4/10 schedule, however, existing data do not indicate productivity improvement for a year-round schedule compared with a 5/8 schedule. Suggested factors that limit 4/10 schedule productivity on a year-round basis include:

  • Extended work day schedules result in more afternoon work hours during the least productive time of the day as noted in studies done by Barnes (2012) and Swart & McCathy (2007).
  • Reduced daylight working hours during a 10-hour day reduces productivity. The use of a 4/10 schedule results in more total work time during twilight or darkness that reduces productivity and increases the need for additional safety measures. Reduced visibility may often impact using equipment, properly observing assigned work, and coordinating with other employees, resulting in lower productivity.
  • While most maintenance work is classified as small response efforts that cannot take advantage of increased setup times that larger projects may experience, large construction jobs, on the other hand, do show some improved productivity measures for 4/10 schedules.
  • Public works maintenance jobs typically work in a crew environment and have limited flexibility to adapt to different or varied schedules of crew members.

While studies suggest that the use of a 4/10 schedule is preferred by most affected employees, public works agencies need to confirm that the needs of the department would be met before implementing AWS. AWS, in most cases, can be a negotiable benefit and help in attracting and retaining top employees, improving the work environment which, in turn, improves employee morale.

Joyce P. Lorick, MPA, owner/administrator, LA Consulting Inc., has 22 years of management and ownership experience in consulting firms for public works and currently directs the production and evaluation of all company technical and management reports, guides employees on marketing in production of proposals, and directs human resources.involved in a statewide Complete Streets initiative in Massachusetts.

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