How a fast-casual restaurant is disrupting the service industry by offering a four-day workweek to its hourly employees

March 23, 2022, 1:37 PM UTC

The COVID-19 pandemic led many businesses to rethink old policies and procedures with their employees’ well-being in mind. But many times, it’s only the professional class who gets to enjoy perks like working from home or flexible schedules. But the New York City-based fast-casual restaurant DIG wants to change that — and it’s starting by offering a four-day workweek to its hourly employees.

DIG launched a pilot program in Boston in September 2020, to see how their employees would respond to working four 10-hour shifts a week rather than a traditional eight hours, five days a week. After an 18-month trial period, DIG announced this week that it will continue to expand its full-time, four-day workweek to all 500 of its hourly employees.

“If the suits can do it, why can’t we?” asks Brian Coakley, DIG’s director of operations. “Why can’t we do it in the restaurant industry?” 

The origins of DIG’s new workweek

DIG’s experiment started out of simple necessity. When the pandemic hit, the company downsized drastically from 32 to eight restaurants. The restaurant staff adjusted their shifts and worked in rotational teams in an effort to stop the spread of COVID. Raj Pancholi, a Boston-based operations manager, noticed that the team taking four-day workweeks was happier to take longer shifts if they had three days off.

The Boston-based restaurant managers convinced DIG’s founders Andrew Jacobson and Adam Eskin to see if a four-day workweek could be sustainable for all DIG restaurants. Armed with employee feedback and customized schedules, they decided to give it a test run in one Boston and one NYC location.

Immediately, positive feedback flooded, Melinda Sharretts, DIG’s VP of people and culture, tells Fortune. Boston employees on the four-day shift said they wouldn’t go back to a five-day schedule.

How DIG found success with a four-day workweek

A big reason why DIG was able to make this switch is it doesn’t rely on many part-time employees. Most employees were full-time already, and often worked shifts that ran longer than eight hours due to the nature of the food-service industry. 

“Most people in this industry already work long shifts, so it wasn’t a super [big] stretch for them,” says Pancholi. But it was a challenge balancing the needs of the employees with the needs of the restaurant and landing on a schedule that worked for everyone. He says it was a collaborative effort. 

They also quickly realized the four-day workweek has some limitations and not every hourly employee was interested in taking it on. Even though nine out of 10 DIG workers choose to implement this schedule, DIG makes sure to pay special attention to those opting out, says Sharretts. 

“It became super clear that if we didn’t [offer customized options], we were gonna end up pushing women of childbearing age, in particular, brown and Black women, out of the company, and that was not going to fly, ” Sharretts says.

How workers responded

While it might seem like pushing roasted vegetables around, this change in schedule is about more than just optics. For DIG, it’s about making sure workers have the opportunity to plan for their breaks. Accounting for regular overtime hours allows employees to make the most of three days off.

On her days off Libanesa Maria (a nickname she requested be used to protect her privacy), an NYC-based hourly team member, is able to dedicate more time to her studies, go to dinner with her mother, and plan dates with her boyfriend. 

This kind of work-life balance isn’t common in service and culinary positions, Coakley aruges. 

Before the adjustment, Maria says she was so stressed out. “I was moody. I didn’t sleep much. I wasn’t eating much either. Because in my head I didn’t have time for that.” Since adopting the four-day workweek, she’s noticed that her coworkers also seem less tense and more excited to return to work.

Another plus of the 10-hour work day is that employees have more time to be trained on new tasks and take on additional responsibilities. Pancholi has noticed that employees who were once customer-facing have been able to learn cooking skills and developed more solid career pathways as they become more interested in being chefs. Maria decided to pursue a position as a sous chef at DIG after taking on more culinary tasks during her 10-hour shifts.

The opportunity for upward mobility in a service job is vital when thinking about retention. Pancholi hopes DIG employees see this as a real job where they can make a career out of it rather than burning out and just moving on to another gig. 

What this could mean for the future of the culinary industry

DIG knows its four-day workweek won’t work for all restaurants, but it also encourages managers and owners to see how taking this step could relieve some of their employees’ stress. 

“It’s a Great Resignation,” says Jacobson, ”There’s still a lot of people working in the restaurant industry, but people are comfortable leaving their jobs. So you’ve got to create a compelling work environment for everybody. And that’s from comp, to benefits, to what you’re doing each day, and how people are feeling satisfied.”

The culinary industry isn’t known for being the first to innovate, argues Pancholi. But DIG’s success shows that these kinds of perks don’t have to be reserved just for the elites in Silicon Valley. 

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