SWAMPSCOTT — The town plans to try out a trend that is starting to catch on with employers across the country: a four-day work week.
The new schedule goes into effect for town employees on May 2.
Town Administrator Sean Fitzgerald said this change aims to provide some flexibility for a town staff that often works beyond normal hours to attend municipal meetings.
“This is part of a focus on trying to keep a healthy work-life balance,” said Fitzgerald.
Swampscott is not alone in making this shift. A four-day work week is being tested by a number of employers in the United States and other countries, following the unprecedented change that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to work.
It has been hailed in a BBC report as the future of employee productivity and work-life balance at a time when exhausted employees are leaving their jobs at record numbers — a widely-reported phenomenon known as the Great Resignation.
In Swampscott, the change was made following a number of key departures at Town Hall. As Fitzgerald worked to fill the vacancies, he was tasked by the Select Board last month with compiling a detailed analysis of possible causes and solutions to the problem.
Fitzgerald presented his recommendations — which were centered around staff retention and recruitment — to the Select Board last week. A new police chief, town clerk and building commissioner have already been hired, but the town is still seeking to fill senior planner and library director vacancies.
“Every organization in this country is facing a degree of transition in the workforce that is unprecedented,” said Fitzgerald. “Swampscott hasn’t been immune to this. We’ve seen individuals looking to strike a little bit more of a work-life balance.
“We’re seeing more opportunities to work from home and really have that broader work-life balance. I think this is a step to address some of those challenges and ensure we’re as competitive in the marketplace for attracting and retaining staff as possible.”
Although employees will be working one fewer day per week, there will not be a change in the number of hours worked. Employees will still work a 34-hour week, and residents will benefit from longer hours at Town Hall, he said.
Town Hall will be closed on Fridays, but it will be open for a half-hour longer on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and will be open into the nighttime hours on Wednesdays (8 a.m. to 7 p.m.).
Fitzgerald said the change was modeled on other communities that have shifted to a shorter work week. He said his team tracked Town Hall visits on Fridays — which currently operates between 8 a.m. to noon — and found that there was a low turnout of residents on those days.
Given the cost of keeping the heat, air conditioning and electricity running, he said it was more efficient to close the building on Fridays. Now that residents can conduct their town business online, such as paying bills and filling out permit applications, there is not as much need for in-person services, Fitzgerald said.
Also factoring into his decision, he said, was the number of hours town employees spend at municipal meetings. For example, he said last week’s Select Board meeting was five-hours long and a Finance Committee meeting that week went until 9 p.m.
Exacerbating the issue, Fitzgerald said, is the fact that many of these meetings are conducted via Zoom, which makes it difficult for town employees to feel a distinction between their work and home lives.
“We want to just keep everybody from really feeling burnt out, and it’s important for us to just recognize that the pandemic has placed an extraordinary burden on many staff,” he said.
Fitzgerald said he and the Select Board have talked about shortening municipal meetings to two hours or starting them earlier in the day.
He said the town will be issuing beach passes to employees, and has talked about providing financial assistance to staff through the fiscal year 2023 budget.
He said there are also plans to provide broader self-care support for employees, “as we really think about what 21st-century culture can be for attracting the best individuals to serve in public life.”
All of these strategies are aimed at better staff retention and recruitment, he said.
“These are hard jobs and they have become even more difficult, given the vitriol and acrimony we see in society,” said Fitzgerald. “It does take a toll on some folks.”