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An Ohio manufacturing company has found success with a 4-day workweek

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Are you dreaming of a four-day work week for five days' pay? Well, one small manufacturing company outside of Cleveland has turned this idea into a reality. NPR's Andrea Hsu visited to see how they are making it work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW BUZZING)

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: In a spacious, airy workshop, Bill Kowalcic is trimming down a small piece of wood to just the right size and shape.

BILL KOWALCIC: I'll shave a little bit more off that.

HSU: He works in the finishing department at Advanced RV, a company that makes custom RVs. These aren't your run-of-the-mill motorhomes. These are Mercedes cargo vans transformed into tiny luxury homes with every detail chosen by the customer. Kowalcic's role is putting in the wall panels, the lighting, the final touches.

KOWALCIC: We don't want to see any screws. We don't want to see any wires. I just want it to be all smooth, fluid and as beautiful as possible.

HSU: Last year, when he first got word that his company was trying out a four-day workweek, he had a lot of questions.

KOWALCIC: I mean, all of us were a little nervous. Like, are we going to be able to get our work done? Are we going to do OK? Is this going to hurt us? But, gosh, it's been great.

HSU: Advanced RV is one of more than 200 companies that have taken part in a global four-day workweek trial and one of only a handful of manufacturers. For six months, the businesses agree to reduce working hours while maintaining the same pay. The goal is not to do less with less but to maintain 100% productivity by bringing more energy and efficiency to the workplace while lessening fatigue and burnout.

MIKE NEUNDORFER: I had read about the four-day week probably two years ago.

HSU: Mike Neundorfer is the CEO of Advanced RV. He founded the company in 2012 after leading other businesses for decades. This has never been a 24/7 kind of shop. Neundorfer has always kept his 50 or so employees to 40 hours a week, which means it takes them a really long time to get their product to their customers - two full years.

NEUNDORFER: We could probably make more money and figure it out if we did overtime, but we never do.

HSU: In fact, in April of last year, he decided to try the opposite, moving everyone to 32 hours a week without any cut in pay.

NEUNDORFER: Think about it. What more impact could a person have on a number of people that work for him than giving them 50 holiday days a year, a three-day weekend every weekend? It just seemed like the most significant thing I could do as a business owner and manager.

HSU: The funny thing is, when he first brought it up, there were a lot of skeptics, including Tricia Eller, who's in charge of customer relations and has been with the company for almost a decade.

TRICIA ELLER: I raised my hand, and I said, I don't think we should do this. This is not going to work. We need to all be here five days a week. This is how businesses run.

HSU: In the beginning, she was assigned Mondays off. But...

ELLER: I worked my Mondays from home. You know, I took a little time to myself but not much. And then as time went on, I thought, what am I doing?

HSU: She had to learn to delegate, to trust that others on her team could handle customer queries. Now she says she'll still check email on her days off.

ELLER: I just can't let go.

HSU: But she also gets to spend more time with her mom, who's retired. Over in the shop, Bill Kowalcic says the three guys on his team got hyper-focused on what they could cut out without cutting corners.

KOWALCIC: We started looking into making more templates, more little jigs and boxes to help us with things that are repetitive.

HSU: They also got more mindful about who can do what task the best and fastest.

KOWALCIC: Well, Zach's (ph) a little better at this, so he's going to do that. I'm a little better at this. I'm going to do that, you know?

HSU: He says each little change might only save six or seven minutes, but...

KOWALCIC: If you save six or seven minutes on six or seven things, you're really starting to push the envelope a little bit and get a little bit more done.

HSU: Even still, his boss Mike Neundorfer says when the company went to a four-day week, they did see a dip in output.

NEUNDORFER: You lose productivity. And when you lose productivity, you lose some volume, and you lose profit.

HSU: And a year and a half into this experiment, he says there's still not as productive as they were when everyone worked five days a week. But they're 90-some percent of the way there.

NEUNDORFER: And I think that at some point, some of the improvements will actually take us beyond what we were able to do in 40 hours.

HSU: His employees, safe to say, are converts. I ask a group of them gathered for lunch if they can imagine going back to working 40 hours a week.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Not on your life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

(LAUGHTER)

HSU: And neither can others. Of 41 North American companies that tried the four-day workweek last year, no one said they're giving it up. Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Willoughby, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIHANNA SONG, "WORK FT. DRAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
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