How often does Utah, of all places, get mentioned as a hotbed of public-policy innovation? Not often. But, last August, the state carried out a rather novel idea: Shift all government employees to a four-day workweek. No, this wasn't the French approach. Workers would still put in their 40 hours; they'd just toil in the office for ten hours a day, Monday through Thursday, and then get Friday off. The experiment's been going on for a year and the results are finally in—the state actually saved a fair bit on energy costs. Scientific American reports:

For those workplaces, there's no longer a need to turn on the lights, elevators or computers on Fridays—nor do janitors need to clean vacant buildings. Electric bills have dropped even further during the summer, thanks to less air-conditioning: Friday's midday hours have been replaced by cooler mornings and evenings on Monday through Thursday. As of May, the state had saved $1.8 million. ...

An interim report released by the Utah state government in February projected a drop of at least 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually from Friday building shutdowns. If reductions in greenhouse gases from commuting are included, the state would check the generation of at least 12,000 metric tons of CO2—the equivalent of taking about 2,300 cars off the road for one year.

Not bad, though how does it balance against increased electricity use at home? Also notable is that workers seem to love the new arrangement: A survey conducted by Brigham Young's Lori Wadsworth found that 82 percent of employees want to keep the four-day workweek. What's more, workers don't get exhausted by the ten-hour days, as originally feared; instead, they enjoy less stress, spend more time with their families, require fewer sick days, and exercise more. (Utahans also seem to be using the free days to volunteer.) Other states like New York are now thinking about trying the idea out for themselves.

In fact, the Scientific American piece might actually understate the benefits of a four-day workweek. As Aaron Newton has calculated, some 106 million Americans drive to work alone each day, an average of 16 miles each way. Cutting out one workday's worth of commuting would not only lower U.S. oil imports by 5 to 10 percent, it would also prevent thousands of traffic fatalities, as well as cut down on the costs of road maintenance, since people tend to drive less on weekends. And workers would see a real income boost by saving on gas. (Newton also points out that if you staggered the four-day workweeks, you could clear up a lot of traffic congestion, though I'm not sure how practical that would be.) What's not to love?

Flickr photo credit: Martin Taylor

--Bradford Plumer