Friday has long been a little bit different.
It was the day the boss might invite the team to leave work a little early, or the suit-and-tie dress code might give way to slacks and sweaters.
But no matter how relaxed, Friday was still another day at the office. Then Covid turned the work world upside down, and Fridays lost their Friday-ness. There was nothing special about a casual dress code, once we were living full-time in sweats, and nothing exciting about leaving work a little early to get home, because many of us were already there.
By the time offices reopened, there was no way to bring back the Friday magic—or even any way to know what Fridays were supposed to be anymore. We may have returned to the office, but an awful lot of workers are still home on Fridays.
So now Fridays float in no man’s land, as not quite a regular workday, and not quite a weekend—creating a whole new set of workplace dilemmas. Can you set up a hybrid schedule where different members of the team come into the office on different days, or will the Friday staffers always feel like they’ve drawn the short straw? Can you ask a client or vendor for a Friday call, or is that intrusive? Can you tell your boss that you’re working Fridays from home, or will that make you seem like a long-weekending slacker? Can you close the office altogether on Fridays, and save a bit on overhead, or do you need to leave the doors open for the handful of employees who prefer going into work on the day it’s all but guaranteed to be a ghost town?
All this confusion is bad for business, bad for teams and bad for employees who need to know how to plan their days and weeks. We need to decide what to make of Fridays in this new world of work: Are they part of the workweek? A new, permanent three-day weekend? Or something in between?
In with the old
For some organizations, the best bet may be returning to Fridays at the office, where “relaxed” meant jeans and a 4:30 beer with the team, and everybody is on the same schedule. Otherwise—especially in organizations with customer-facing or on-site work—having a chunk of workers disappear on Fridays is a recipe for resentment. It’s bad enough for line workers or customer-service representatives to see that back-office colleagues have more flexibility to work remotely. It’s worse when they also see what looks like a life of perpetual long weekends.
Still, organizations that resurrect a standard Monday to Friday workweek may have some challenges with recruitment, retention and engagement. Surveys show that many professionals would rather look for new jobs than return to the office full-time, and they likely will be unhappy if even a hybrid schedule includes Friday at the office.
It’s possible to create a hybrid schedule in which the Friday-at-home privilege rotates within or across teams. But that has its own problems in having to choreograph who gets which Fridays at home, and the unpredictability of employees never quite knowing who they’ll find in the office. And if you try to solve the problem by making everybody come into the office on Fridays, you preclude the possibility of saving money with a hybrid plan that lets you shrink your real-estate footprint.
Four days a week
Another option is to just declare Fridays part of the weekend, embracing the four-day workweek that has shown favorable results in a global pilot program. There’s now plenty of evidence that a shorter workweek preserves productivity and boosts employee well-being, and if you’re ready to take the four-day plunge, you can solve the Friday dilemma by cutting it from the workweek. What’s Friday? The same as Saturday and Sunday.
Running your whole organization on the same schedule makes it easier for your employees to know when their colleagues will be reachable, and if you’re going to pick the same four work days for your whole organization, it makes sense for those to be Mondays through Thursdays, given the widespread preference for Friday flexibility.
But it isn’t always feasible to be a four-day-a-week organization in a five-day world. That’s exactly why some four-day-workweek employers end up with a staggered schedule: Even if your own employees work only four days, you may need to offer Friday hours to customers or vendors.
And of course, not every company wants to move to a four-day workweek: There are plenty of organizations where it’s routine for many employees to work 50 hours or more each week, and paring that down to 32 might seem both unrealistic and undesirable.
The third way
If you’re not prepared to turn Fridays into a weekend, and you’re worried about the impact on morale of making just about everyone spend Fridays in the office, what else could you do? Well, maybe there’s a third way: We could keep Friday in the notional workweek, but run it on different rules.
Picture Fridays where the office is closed, phones are off, texting is on hold and emails can wait until Monday. But it’s different from a four-day workweek because it isn’t a day off by default. Instead, Fridays become the day when employees tackle focused work, since they won’t be interrupted by emails, texts and phone calls, and if someone is so efficient that they’ve completed most of their tasks by the end of Thursday, they might even take some of Friday as personal time. We get the benefit of clarity—we know we won’t be expected to take meetings or calls, and we know we won’t be able to reach our colleagues—while offering employees a nice perk, and an incentive to be extra efficient the rest of the week to have a little flexibility on Friday.
This approach could work well if it’s widespread, and we arrive at a cultural norm where business calls and meetings happen between Monday and Thursday. It will be harder to swing on an employer-by-employer basis: It’s one thing to say you won’t book internal calls or meetings on a Friday, but harder to leave a customer call or email unanswered until Monday. It may also lead to a little more evening work on Thursdays, especially in organizations that span multiple time zones, so that people sending late-Thursday emails don’t have to wait until Monday for an answer.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the Friday dilemma, any more than there is one right approach to scheduling in the new era of hybrid work. But what is universal is the challenge of planning a workweek—or a personal life!—when one-fifth of our workweek is now in a gray zone. Better to make a decision about how the organization will handle the fifth day, and get all employees and customers on the same page.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on September 14, 2023, and written by Julia Carpenter. ILLUSTRATION: GIACOMO BAGNARA
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