On summer Fridays, more are giving work the slip — with bosses’ blessing

It’s another sunny summer Friday afternoon, and at 2:30 the Beltway is jammed, the Bay Bridge is backed up and the grass at Farragut Square downtown is crammed with office workers enjoying a very long lunch.

What no one seems to be doing is actually working on a workday.

From government employees who stretch their flextime into three-day weekends to private-sector businesses that adopt summer hours because they realize nothing is getting done on Friday afternoons anyway, a growing number of Washington area residents are enjoying a workweek that ends on Thursday evening or midday Friday.

The shift has occurred despite the dreary economy and in the face of widespread anxiety about job security, according to economists and academics who study labor trends.

In an informal survey of personnel directors at Fortune 1000 companies conducted for The Washington Post by the Corporate Executive Board in Rosslyn, nearly half said their business has instituted a compressed workweek during the summer or is considering doing so, often by allowing workers to put in longer hours Monday through Thursday in exchange for taking off all or part of Friday.

“We see companies moving in the direction of giving employees flexibility over when they work,” said Brian Kropp, managing director of the board’s Corporate Leadership Council, which advises businesses on management and strategy. “Taking every other Friday off is much more effective than ice cream socials or company picnics. The gift of time is the most precious gift you can give an employee, and it pays off in employee engagement.”

At SpeakerBox Communications, a public relations firm in Tysons Corner, chief executive Elizabeth Shea created a summer-hours option seven years ago, allowing employees to work an extra half-hour Monday through Thursday in exchange for ending their workweek midday Friday every other week all summer.

“The extra half-hour doesn’t feel painful, especially in the recession, when people felt the need to work extra hard,” Shea said, “and this helped them feel rewarded for that extra work.”

As a service company, SpeakerBox has to remain available to customers, “but in the summer, there’s less likelihood that our clients are going to need us to accommodate them on a Friday afternoon,” Shea said.

The National Geographic Society’s downtown offices are closed alternate Fridays all summer. The organization’s “Green Fridays” program, launched in 2008, was intended to save energy, but workers, who add one hour a day to their schedule the rest of the week during the summer, say the policy has also been a morale boost at the nonprofit organization that has resorted to layoffs because of declining membership.

The idea of an early quit is top of mind for many office workers who head to Farragut Square for the weekly Farragut Friday gathering of many of Washington’s food trucks. As the trucks line the square, some workers have already finished their job for the week while others are stretching their lunch hour, hoping to slip back into the office and then right out again.

Najla Haywood, who works at a downtown consultancy, doesn’t get Friday afternoons off, but “fortunately,” she said, “I have a boss who doesn’t care that much about face time as long as the work gets done.” At a previous job, Haywood did get off early on summer Fridays, and she wonders why more employers don’t offer the chance to trade longer days the rest of the week for early quits on Fridays.

Many economists share that puzzlement. Although Americans, on average, work longer hours now than just before the recession hit — a Corporate Executive Board survey found workers reporting a 10 percent increase in hours between 2007 and this year — “productivity would theoretically increase if you ratchet back the hours people work,” Kropp said. “But companies are not willing to take that bet right now for fear that in the short run, a shorter week would mean less output.”

Still, academic evidence in favor of shorter hours is consistent, including a 2009 Harvard Business Review report that demonstrated improved efficiency and heightened creativity when workers were required to take time off rather than be “always on.”

It’s not just employers who can be leery of shortening the workweek. Workers who fear losing status — or even their job — if they are not always around are often suspicious of the idea. Americans top global surveys in the portion of workers who don’t use all of their vacation time. In a study of 20 major nations, the United States was the only one with no legal requirement for some paid vacation. About a quarter of U.S. workers have zero paid time off, said John Schmitt, senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in the District.

Many workers “don’t want to be seen as slackers, or they worry that if they do go on vacation, they’ll have double the stress when they come back to all that piled-up work,” said John de Graaf, a documentary filmmaker who has focused on Americans’ struggle to balance leisure and work. In a forthcoming book — “What’s the Economy For, Anyway?” — de Graaf cites academic work showing that both blue- and white-collar workers need both short breaks and longer vacations to prevent burnout.

Although summer hours are primarily seen in professional and white-collar workplaces rather than in manufacturing or retail, there may be some benefit for the U.S. economy as a whole if shorter workweeks became more widespread, Schmitt said.

Especially in times of high unemployment, if employers spread the available work among more employees, that would reduce some people’s income but could make a noticeable dent in joblessness, Schmitt said. The net result might be increased productivity and a happier workforce, a win-win for management and labor.

Employers are generally allergic to any government mandate of shorter or more-flexible workweeks, but many businesses are happily moving in that direction on their own, said Marc Freedman, executive director for labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce .

“In Washington, there’s no such thing as a normal eight-hour workday,” Freedman said. “I’m here till 7:30 on a regular basis, so if I take off on a Friday afternoon in the summer, it’s not a big deal. Of course, if you run a restaurant, you can’t do that.”

Freedman said employers get nervous about “anything that sounds like ‘Thou shalt,’ but shorter hours could have some benefit, and we support the idea as a good-practices initiative.”