What Happens When a Company Expands "Summer Fridays" Year-Round?

Maya KosoffFeatures

In summer 2020, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the edtech company where Amanda, a marketing manager, works started a new initiative. Instead of its usual Summer Fridays, in which the company gave employees a half day every week, her employer decided to institute an improved version of the policy, giving everyone a full day off every other week.

After realizing that productivity at the company hadn’t dropped at all — and that morale improved — Amanda’s company instituted “Refresh Fridays” year round, freeing her up for rote errands (“Sometimes I'll use it to run errands or for appointments so I don't have to take PTO and still have time on the weekend to fully relax or do fun things with my partner and friends,” she told The Org) and hobbies (“I usually spend it hiking or doing more elaborate baking or cooking projects that I wouldn't have time for during the week”) alike.

Giving workers more time off

Though it’s not logistically feasible for every company in every industry, Summer Fridays are a policy at some companies in which employees get time off (either a full day or a half day) on Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when business is theoretically slower and the weather’s nice.

Some companies, like Amanda’s, have used the pandemic to expand these Summer Friday policies, building in more time to give employees a break. These expanded Summer Fridays — sometimes called “Flex Fridays” or “Refresh Fridays” — are also an acknowledgement by some companies that perhaps workers don’t need 40 hours a week to get their work done.

The New York Times wrote about this trend of expanding Summer Fridays two years ago, when before the pandemic some offices and schools were already bringing to life the concept of “Winter Fridays” as a means of keeping up morale during an otherwise depressing season. And in 2014, the New York Post wrote about the worst caricature of Winter Fridays, rich people taking the day off from work to go ski. (Here is a direct quote from that article: “‘Any company I’d work for would want to keep their employees happy by letting them take a Friday to shred some ‘pow,’’ says 32-year-old Jason Bhatti, director of sales at Zemanta, a service for bloggers, in Chelsea.”)

The slow creep back to normal

Last year, the large tech company that Alex works for introduced a new policy: Nobody in their division of the company was allowed to schedule meetings after 1 pm local time. “We were supposed to use the afternoons for personal development,” they told The Org. The company provided employees with a list of suggestions, including Coursera courses, getting involved in business resource groups, and reading about pertinent DEI issues.

For a while, people at the company enjoyed the new policy. But by winter 2020 and spring 2021, calendar creep became an issue — people at the company were slowly scheduling meetings on Friday afternoons again, undermining the company policy. Over the summer, the company published an internal blog post announcing that “No-Meeting Fridays” would become a permanent fixture, and stating explicitly that Fridays were for people to do whatever they wanted with it, personal development or otherwise. “I personally have a permanent busy hold on my calendar every Friday after 1 to encourage people not to schedule that time, but there's been creep back again,” Alex told The Org.

And though these policies have been introduced and presented as morale-boosters or salves for burnout or stress caused by the pandemic, it’s not clear to Alex that a policy alone can fix it. “I think that the ubiquitous stress/burnout is much larger and something that having free Fridays won't fix,” they told The Org. “Since I work in tech, the non-burned out folks are really driven and want to see results quickly, and they're the ones most likely to schedule something on a Friday or agree to a Friday meeting.”

What about other four-day workweek styles?

Particularly for client-services companies, granting everyone the same Friday off can be tricky. At Brilliant, a startup that helps companies curate, produce and distribute merchandise, founder and CEO Millie Tadewaldt implemented a one-day-a-month “Self Care Day” in January 2021 for employees to take off a day in the middle of the week instead to take care of themselves. And having the day fall in the middle of the week also allows people time to handle anything that comes up on their Self Care Day, which is important since Brilliant is largely a client services organization.

“The idea originally struck me because, as a parent, it occurred to me that I had had zero days off since my 6 year old was born in the sense that my nights and weekends (caring for kids) are someone else's full time job,” she told The Org. “The idea is that it's a set Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday each month (e.g., the third Wednesday). It's in the middle of the week so you aren't tempted to make it a long weekend and ‘go big’ but rather that you'll use it for true self care.”

Tadewaldt, who describes herself as “four-day workweek curious,” says Brilliant hasn’t seen a loss of productivity, and that people organization-wide respect Self Care Day. When someone takes their day off, a Slack emoji of a blob wrapped in a cozy blanket has become popular to indicate that they’re out of office for their Self Care Day.

The future of the five-day workweek

In a tight labor market, one benefit of shortened workweeks and extra time off can’t be overlooked. “Overall, I think it is a great policy and is something that has stopped me from considering other positions,” Amanda, who works at the edtech company with the expanded Summer Friday policy, told The Org. “Having that Friday off is worth getting paid a little less than I know I could get if I switched jobs. It's essentially 25 extra days of PTO.”

This slightly shrunken workweek looks a bit like the four day workweek, which companies such as Shake Shack and Kickstarter have experimented with since 2020. After an experiment in Iceland gave support to the idea that four-day workweeks improve worker morale and wellbeing without reducing output, a majority of Icelandic workers have now moved to shorter workweeks, or will soon have the right to. Here in the U.S., the Congressional Progressive Caucus is backing a bill called the “32-Hour Workweek Act,” which would theoretically shorten a regular week of work from 40 hours to 32, and bring the four-day work week stateside.

As Americans rethink the role work plays in their lives, the four-day workweek’s implementation into law — or at a minimum, into the mainstream — could mark a shift in how we think about work. "The traditional model of how we work has been broken," Meghana Reddy, vice president of video messaging service Loom, recently told Reuters. "I think there's a real opportunity there to just say, let's have work fit into our lives in a better way, as opposed to us fit our lives into work."

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