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A manufacturer tried the 4-day workweek for 5 days' pay and won't go back

Bill Kowalcic works on wall panels in the finishing department at Advanced RV. After the company went to a four-day workweek, his team figured out how to cut time without cutting corners.
Amber N. Ford for NPR
Bill Kowalcic works on wall panels in the finishing department at Advanced RV. After the company went to a four-day workweek, his team figured out how to cut time without cutting corners.

When Bill Kowalcic first heard that his company Advanced RV was trying out a four-day workweek, he was filled with questions.

"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?" says Kowalcic, a skilled craftsman who works in the finishing department.

A year and a half later, he has answers.

Not only has his team found shortcuts and time savers, he's happier on the job.

"Gosh, it's been great," he says.

"I've never had a job where I've said this before, but at the end of the three-day weekend, I'm ready to come back in Monday morning."

The trial has spread globally, but few manufacturers have taken part

Advanced RV builds custom, luxury motorhomes out of Mercedes-Benz cargo vans in Willoughby, Ohio. It is one of more than 200 companies and only a handful of manufacturers that have taken part in an ongoing global trial led by the organization 4 Day Week Global.

Advanced RV takes two years to build custom motorhomes for clients.
/ Amber N. Ford for NPR
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Amber N. Ford for NPR
Advanced RV takes two years to build custom motorhomes for clients.
An Advanced RV employee works on a custom RV that will eventually become a mobile library.
/ Amber N. Ford for NPR
/
Amber N. Ford for NPR
An Advanced RV employee works on a custom RV that will eventually become a mobile library.

For six months, 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.

The success stories coming out of the trial have offered a work-weary public hope that a better work-life balance is achievable. Of the 41 American and Canadian companies that began the trial in 2022, none has reported going back to working 40 hours a week.

A closer look at how Advanced RV has managed to significantly reduce its working hours while keeping up productivity reveals some essential elements: a tolerance for risk, and also trust, creativity, and open-mindedness.

"The most significant thing I could do as a business owner"

The company's CEO Mike Neundorfer says he first heard about the four-day workweek about two years ago.

In 2021, Iceland reported that two trials involving 2,500 workers, most of them government employees, had found working fewer hours for the same pay led to improved well-being with no loss in productivity. In some places, workers reported being even more productive after cutting back their hours.

The idea resonated deeply with Neundorfer.

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

Advanced RV CEO Mike Neundorfer says he first heard about the four-day workweek two years ago and was intrigued. His company joined the global four-day week trial in early 2022 and hasn't returned to a five-day week since.
/ Amber N. Ford for NPR
/
Amber N. Ford for NPR
Advanced RV CEO Mike Neundorfer says he first heard about the four-day workweek two years ago and was intrigued. His company joined the global four-day week trial in early 2022 and hasn't returned to a five-day week since.

Neundorfer, who founded Advanced RV in 2012 after leading other successful businesses, had never envisioned the company as a 24/7 kind of operation. His employees don't work more than 40 hours a week, even though that has meant customers wait two years for their custom RVs.

"We could probably make more money and figure it out if we did overtime, but we never do," he says.

Instead, in April 2022, he decided to try the opposite, moving everyone to 32 hours a week without any cut in pay.

Neundorfer knew it was a gamble, one he thought had a 50/50 chance of success. The vast majority of other companies in the four-day workweek trial employ office workers. Many of them are nonprofits.

Still, as a small business, he says it was easy for him to experiment. Advanced RV has 50 employees, no shareholders other than Neundorfer and his wife and no formal board.

And he was OK with the odds.

"Everybody won't feel that way," he says.

Skeptics in the ranks

In fact, when Neundorfer first talked with his employees about joining the four-day workweek trial, not everyone in the room was thrilled.

Tricia Eller, who handles customer relations for Advanced RV, was initially against cutting the workweek to four days. "This is not going to work," she insisted at the time. She has since come around.
/ Amber N. Ford for NPR
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Amber N. Ford for NPR
Tricia Eller, who handles customer relations for Advanced RV, was initially against cutting the workweek to four days. "This is not going to work," she insisted at the time. She has since come around.

"I raised my hand and I said, I don't think we should do this. This is not going to work," says Tricia Eller, who joined the company in 2014 and is primarily responsible for customer relations.

She strongly believed everyone needed to be at the office five days a week.

"This is how business is run," she insisted at the time.

Assigned to take Mondays off, she simply worked from home to ensure that customers would get the kind of attention they were used to.

A search for efficiencies

Undeterred, Neundorfer began searching for efficiencies.

He asked every department whether there were tools or equipment that could speed up tasks. His upholsterers asked for an industrial sewing machine that would allow them to bind carpets in a quarter of the time.

"This was a no brainer," he says. "We looked at the cost and we didn't have to even sit down with a spreadsheet. We knew this was something we should do."

Master upholsterer Alex LLacsahuanga works on an industrial sewing machine that Advanced RV purchased as part of a push to find efficiencies. The sewing machine helps cut the time it takes to bind carpets.
/ Amber N. Ford for NPR
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Amber N. Ford for NPR
Master upholsterer Alex LLacsahuanga works on an industrial sewing machine that Advanced RV purchased as part of a push to find efficiencies. The sewing machine helps cut the time it takes to bind carpets.
A custom mural made by Chad Fedorovich and Mikey Garcia inside Advanced RV in Willoughby, Ohio.
/ Amber N. Ford for NPR
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Amber N. Ford for NPR
A custom mural made by Chad Fedorovich and Mikey Garcia inside Advanced RV in Willoughby, Ohio.

In the finishing department, Kowalcic says he and his two teammates got hyper-focused on what processes they might eliminate, without cutting corners.

"We started making more templates, more little jigs and boxes to help us with things that are repetitive," he says.

They also got more mindful about who does which tasks the best and fastest, and started dividing up the work accordingly.

Each change might only save them mere minutes.

"But if you save six or seven minutes on six or seven things, then you're really starting to push the envelope a little bit and get a little bit more done," Kowalcic says.

Productivity did take an initial hit, but happiness is up

Neundorfer says Advanced RV did see a dip in output as a result of moving to a 32-hour workweek.

"You lose productivity," he says. "And when you lose productivity, you lose some volume, and you lose profit."

Now a year and a half into this experiment, he says the company has nearly recovered those productivity losses.

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

Judging by employee satisfaction, the experiment has already been a resounding success.

Bill Kowalcic in his music room. In his time off, he enjoys performing with his heavy new wave band Public Squares.
/ Amber N. Ford for NPR
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Amber N. Ford for NPR
Bill Kowalcic in his music room. In his time off, he enjoys performing with his heavy new wave band Public Squares.

Kowalcic now spends his Fridays riding his bike, working on his home remodel, and getting ready for evening gigs with his heavy new wave band Public Squares. And then he still has the weekend.

"Spending more time with family, just a little more relaxation, meditation — it really helps keep me centered," he says.

On her Mondays off, Eller in customer relations still checks her email — she says she just can't let go — but she'll also spend time with her mom, who is retired, or go to the movies.

"Talk to me on a Sunday, and you'll find me in the best mood because I know I have Monday to myself to relax," she says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.