The four-day workweek has come to an American college.
D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y., turned heads last week when it announced that staff and administrators would shift to a four-day, 32-hour workweek—down from the five-day, 37.5-hour week they previously worked—without any reduction to their pay or benefits. The private college is launching the four-day workweek on a trial basis, with plans to assess how it’s working, and whether there have been any changes in student satisfaction, after six months.
The change comes in the context of a tight labor market. Many institutions are struggling with staff and faculty burnout, and many employees who became accustomed to working remotely during the pandemic are seeking more flexibility in their work schedules.
“We absolutely feel it’s going to help us with talent acquisition. We feel very strongly it will also help us with employee attrition,” said Lorrie Clemo, president of D’Youville.
“Our staff and administrators are very much knowledge workers, and they have for many years seen the faculty having flexibility in their schedules,” she said. “I think this will really help in terms of a more consistent approach to how we work with both faculty and staff by giving our staff and administrators the sort of flexibility that faculty have enjoyed for years in terms of how they manage their workloads.”
Clemo said the idea grew out of the college’s experience with the pandemic and participation in a New York State shared work program through which the college temporarily reduced employee hours to 32 hours a week for the summer of 2020 and employees were eligible for unemployment benefits for the missing hours.
“The program in New York State gave us the opportunity to almost trial a reduced workweek, and I felt during that time period that we had more innovative programming coming forward, greater dedication of our employees and much more collaboration,” she said. “It really got me thinking about whether or not we could do this on a longer-term basis.”
The college has identified multiple goals for the reduced workweek: improving employee well-being is one goal, but other goals include achieving greater efficiencies through the use of technology and incentivizing professional development. To be eligible to participate, employees will have to enroll in professional development courses with initial offerings including project management, information support, user experience design and data analytics.
“What we want to do is use this almost as a carrot to get them to get more technology training in Office 365, more training in higher-level supervisory project management, and of course we want everybody to get more training in terms of data analytics,” Clemo said. “We believe this is really going to allow us to continue at that 32-hour workweek if we incorporate those skills into our workforce.”
The college is also putting an emphasis on cross-training employees across units. Clemo said the college is actually extending the hours offices are open, from 8 to 4:30 to 8 to 5—a function of employees working eight-hour days rather than 7.5.
“We are in the process of partnering offices with other offices so we have cross-training that’s going to take place,” she said. “We don’t expect that any offices will be closed at all. This will actually be an improvement over what we had in the past, when someone took a vacation day or sick day and the office would have to close. We’re going to make sure everyone is partnered up with another office so offices will remain open.”
The change to the workweek went into effect for D’Youville staff and administrators last week.
“I think it definitely boosts morale,” said Ryan Miller, director of student persistence at D’Youville and leader of an advisory group of administrators. “It gives our staff a more true work-life balance. They can work on hobbies, they can do research, they can spend more time with their families. I think it’s really going to energize the staff and allow them to be more creative, allow them to be more productive and really look for efficiencies and other ways to increase student satisfaction.”
“There’s that old saying, ‘happy employees are happy customers,’” Miller said. “I think you can probably say the same thing: if you have a happy staff, the students are going to see that and they’re going to gravitate toward that.”
John Rizk, president of D’Youville’s student government association, applauded the change.
“The Student Government Association is happy to hear about the shift to a 32-hour workweek and I hope that our future employers adopt the same forward thinking approach to our work/life balance,” Rizk said in a written statement. “I’m sure that the evaluation of this change is going to show incredible results and that D’Youville is paving the way for other universities in the future.”
Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who writes about faculty and staff burnout, said he was happy to see an institution “experimenting with an idea that research shows has had some success, at least in the private sector, success in terms of improving employee morale, while at the same time in some cases improving productivity or profitability.”
McClure said he had questions about how the reduced workweek will be implemented at D’Youville.
“One of them is whether or not there is enough effort being put in to ensure that this doesn’t just force individuals to try to squeeze more into the days that they are working in order to get everything done,” he said. “In other words, it makes me wonder if there will be ways in which they’ll be allowing individuals to really concentrate on the core aspects of their work.”
Laura Hechtel, the interim president and chief negotiator of D’Youville’s faculty union, which is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, said professors are supportive of the change for staff and administrators but feel they are being left out. The union is currently in negotiations with the university for a new faculty contract.
“We are in favor of the 32-hour workweek policy as a means of increasing retention, improving working conditions, and increasing employee health and wellness. The administrative staff and librarians at D’Youville are some of the hardest working and dedicated people on campus and deserve an improvement in work/life balance,” Hechtel said in a statement. “However, the college has done nothing similar to the 32-hour workweek for the faculty of the college. If anything, the faculty are assuming additional responsibilities that have been thrust upon them due to the actions of the administration.”
Hechtel said faculty have taken on additional administrative tasks after some academic support staff members were furloughed and subsequently terminated following the start of the pandemic in 2020 (Clemo said eight academic support positions were eliminated). And she noted that during contract negotiations in December, the college proposed increasing the teaching load for a small subset of professors in the chiropractic and pharmacy programs who are on 12-month contracts from 24 credit hours per year to 36, reasoning this would bring them more in line with faculty on nine-month contracts, who teach a 24-credit-hour load per year.
“Faculty at D’Youville are overworked, overstressed and feeling that they are not being heard by the administration,” said Hechtel, a professor of biology.
Clemo said the college is interested in ways to reduce faculty teaching loads to allow for more research and scholarship. She said the vice president for academic affairs is working with the Faculty Senate, outside the collective bargaining process, on a proposal to this effect.
“I absolutely recognize we’re seeing the same level of stress, tiredness and fatigue on our faculty that we’ve seen on our staff and administrators,” Clemo said. “The difference is with our faculty we are in a collective bargaining agreement, so any changes to the schedule, changes to their workload, have to go through that process. We are still in active negotiations, which will likely be going on for several months.”