How Utopian Landscapes Switched its Schedule to Help Employees Achieve Work/Life Balance

Nikos Phelps switches to four, 10-hour days weekly to improve work/life balance.

Landscape business owners often feel like there is an “us versus them” mentality when it comes to employees. They feel like everyone is just in it for themselves.

Nikos Phelps switches to four, 10-hour days weekly to improve work/life balance.
Nikos Phelps, Utopian Landscapes

Nikos Phelps, founder of Utopian Landscapes LLC based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, says that he sensed tension building in his company and took a step back to ask himself, “If I were an employee, would I want to work for this industry?” When the answer was “No,” he knew something had to change. They weren’t losing employees to other companies—they were losing them to other industries.

Trying to identify where things were going wrong, Phelps says he could hone in on one thing: Employees didn’t have much of a work/life balance. They were putting in 50- or 60-hour weeks and even though they said they wanted the work, there was noticeable animosity.

Work/Life Balance Strategy #1: Restructure Hours

Phelps realized the solution would be risky and would mean completely re-structuring the company’s work week. By moving to a “4-10 schedule,” that is, four 10-hour days each week, Phelps says the culture at his company has been transformed.

The goal is to have Fridays off, but Phelps says it doesn’t always work out that way. If there is a rain day, then that day may end up being the day off and the crews will work Fridays. But Phelps says he’s willing to give crews the option to work through the rain if they really want to have their Fridays off.

“We allow them to have flexibility with this schedule and to take ownership of it,” Phelps explains. “It’s no fun working in the rain, but if everyone agrees they’d really rather put in the hard work in the rain and be able to have Friday off, then they can do that. Sometimes the team collectively decides they’re going to have a four-day weekend by taking off Friday and Monday and working the remaining days. We like letting them make those decisions as often as possible.”

Phelps says everyone loves it, especially their families. Team members are able to avoid missing special family events and have a lot more flexibility in their schedules, which makes everything from doctor’s appointments, milestones and hobbies more “doable.”

“When you work sun up to sun down every weekday, you don’t have much time for anything else,” Phelps says. “We realized we needed to change that.”

Work/Life Balance Strategy #2: Add Paid Vacation & Pay Well

On top of that, Phelps has also created more work/life balance for his employees by providing paid vacation time—something that isn’t common in the landscape industry. But he says it has paid off for him by having happier, harder working employees.

Since switching to the 4-10 schedule, employees have become more adamant about adhering to 40 hours a week and not offering much overtime. Instead, he pays his employees better from the onset.

“Just because you’re paying time-and-a-half doesn’t mean that your team is working 50 percent harder,” Phelps says. “They actually end up working slower and less efficiently because they’re burned out. We have found that sticking to the 40-hour week and paying crews better from the start has led to an increase in their efficiency. They work harder and they’re a lot more invested in doing a good job.”

Work/Life Balance Strategy #3: Work Smarter Not Harder

Working “smarter not harder” has helped Utopian avoid losing jobs despite the change in schedule. Clients can see that they’re getting the job done well, even if they’re not working a traditional five-day week.

However, he recalls one project the company lost to another contractor, but when push came to shove, he was happy they did. “We drove by the job site on a holiday weekend and saw they had crews out there on Saturday and Sunday,” Phelps says. “We couldn’t have done that to our team.”

Today, Phelps’ is three years into to the 4-10 work schedule and he says it has transformed the company.

“Now if I ask myself, “Is this a place I would want to work?” the answer has changed to ‘Yes,’” he says. “Employees are the backbone of our industry and if we treat them well, we can start to change the stigma that surrounds landscaping. We don’t want a job to consume people. We want them to be happy and able to pursue their passions outside of work. I can’t speak for everyone, but it has really made a world of difference to the culture of our company.”