May 11, 2022
At first it sounded like a crazy academic question: What would happen if people only worked four days a week? Studies were done, like a now famous one at Microsoft in Japan, which found that (no surprise) employee morale went up and (maybe a surprise) productivity stayed the same.
But these days, the idea is sounding a little less crazy — and some entrepreneurs are already implementing it.
What changed? The pandemic, for one. “Prior to the pandemic, investors would automatically pass if a startup was fully remote,” says Brianne Kimmel, founder of Worklife, who invests in companies that improve the way we work. She was initially skeptical of the four-day workweek herself. But since 2020, she says, investors have become much more flexible about the work cultures they’ll support.
Then, of course, the so-called Great Resignation changed things — forcing leaders to rethink what their employees need. Worklife conducted a large survey of Gen Z workers and found a noteworthy trend: When full-time employees were asked if they do some kind of paid freelance work on the side, 52% said yes, 31% said no but that they’d like to, and only 17% weren’t interested. That’s a lot of people eager for flexibility — which could make the four-day workweek a competitive advantage for any company looking to hire entrepreneurially-minded people.
“If the four-day workweek proves to be a successful experiment, which I believe it will, then companies will need to embrace this working style in order to stay competitive in today’s brutally competitive job market,” Kimmel says.
Kimmel’s word experiment is important there. The four-day workweek certainly has its detractors, who say there are better ways to make employees happy. “The bottom line is that the best work of your life can’t be limited to Monday through Friday — it happens during these micro-moments, which the four-day workweek would effectively limit,” says Humphrey Ho, U.S. managing director at the advertising agency Hylink Digital Solutions.
So, what’s it really like to run (or work at) a company with a four-day workweek? Read on as three very different leaders share their experiences and the lessons they’ve learned.
What Matters Most at Work?
Stop measuring people’s time, says Yac. Start measuring their output.
Long before the four-day workweek was in vogue, Justin Mitchell was an evangelist for flexible schedules.
It’s baked into the product he sells: He’s the founder and CTO of Yac , an asynchronous meetings platform. “Meetings are the thing that control your day,” he says. “If you can get rid of the time-limiter, then you can start talking about how we can have a different day.” So naturally, that’s what he’s always done at Yac.
Mitchell has 12 employees spread around the globe, and he gives them a lot of freedom. “Wake up when you want to wake up, and stop work when you want to stop work,” he says. But that can be amorphous, so this year, he created a more formalized policy: It’s like a four-day workweek, except it’s based on hours, not days. He expects his team to work 32 hours a week, distributed however they’d like — and if they get their work done in less, that’s fine too.
This way, Mitchell says, he’s enabling each team member to properly maximize themselves. “It would surprise you how eclectic everyone’s different working styles can be, because you’ve never opened it up and said, ‘Work however you want to work,’” he says. “Most companies are very restrictive. What I found is that one person works great for three-hour sprints. Another person does not work well before 11 a.m. Another person works amazing after 10 p.m.”
Mitchell knows this isn’t right for every company. “I’m hiring people who are already used to being self-sufficient,” he says. It’s why he never posts on traditional job boards; he recruits via postings on Reddit or Twitter. And despite the high level of trust with his team, he does track everyone’s hours. For example, although the company has an unlimited time-off policy, people still must put in a request for personal days. That way Yac can audit people’s time and watch for warning signs — though it’s generally not because people are slacking. It’s because they’re overworking. “Then we can say, ‘Hey, please take tomorrow off. You are working too hard. You’re going to burn out,’” Mitchell says.
It also requires a particular kind of leader with what he calls an “it can wait” mentality.
“It is not necessarily my business to know whether someone’s sitting at their desk or not,” Mitchell says. “When you operate in a sense of asynchronous communication first, it’s a calm communication environment. Which means I do not expect a response immediately, either because you’re away from your desk or because you’re heads down working and focused on something.”
Can this scale? After all, it’s one thing to run a company this way with 12 trusted staffers — and quite another to do it with 1,200 people. Mitchell feels confident that the answer is yes, but he admits that it won’t be easy. Companies must build a scalable structure that supports this work. Management must be flattened, so there aren’t as many layers of people to report to. And performance reviews must be regular and focused around checking in with employees to ask things like, “Do you feel like you have enough support?”
This is a case Mitchell makes often — because it’s essentially the case he makes to clients who are considering his asynchronous meeting platform. “You’re measuring things wrong,” he often tells them, when they express skepticism that their workdays can become more flexible. “You’re measuring input, not output.” Input is the time people put into the company; output is the work they get done. Measure the right thing, he says, and everything becomes more flexible.
People Are a Limited Resource
CareerEar tries to scale without stretching its employees.
Claudine Adeyemi used to work in professional services, where she’d labor away for long hours. “I distinctly remember a period where I just started questioning everything,” she says. Why, for example, did people work five days a week? Was there a good reason for this? She couldn’t find one. “I decided that if I ever set up my own company, I would implement a four-day workweek.”
Then she began to do just that. She started CareerEar as a side hustle in 2018; it’s a holistic careers platform that supports people from underserved communities. When she started hiring staff and eventually devoted herself to it full-time in October 2021, she held firm to her belief in the four-day workweek — though she knew it would create complications.
The first was legal: She worried that, if she created employment contracts for four-day workweeks, her team wouldn’t be considered full-time employees. So her contracts say Monday through Friday, despite a company policy that nobody will work that much.
The next was cultural: At a startup, there are always things to do and fires to put out; it’s why employees at many startups end up pulling all-nighters or giving up their weekends. “Leadership must really set the tone,” Adeyemi says, and so she made many policies for herself and others. Nobody can send a Slack message on the day people aren’t working, for example. They don’t have many meetings, because those take up time. And she has come to think of her people as a limited resource. “We have to constantly think about, is this a good use of someone’s time?”
She realizes this means making sacrifices; her startup may not charge as hard as others. But it has enabled her to recruit top-tier talent, which she might not have had the cachet or cash to attract otherwise. “I’ve lost count of the number of interviews where people have explicitly said the four-day workweek was a major attraction to them,” Adeyemi says.
But there’s one person at her company who cannot enjoy the fruits of her policies — and that’s Adeyemi herself. “I don’t work a four-day workweek!” she says. “I work around the clock.” But she still benefits. When her employees have the day off, she paces herself differently. She gets up early, goes for a swim, then devotes her day to strategic planning. “I don’t take any meetings, any calls, nothing like that,” she says. She even takes a walk in the afternoon, which she doesn’t get to do on any other day.
But she knows there are still problems to solve. At the end of 2021, she and her team discussed how the year went and what they’d like to improve, and people said they “wanted to spend more time with each other and hadn’t been able to build some of those relationships that they would have hoped to,” Adeyemi says. Now she’s trying to solve for that. She’s creating a more complex system — there will be days when everyone’s in, but also days that people can select as their day off. “We’re not perfect by any means,” she says. But to her, it’s never a question of whether or not to have a four-day workweek — it’s simply a question of how to make it work.
It’s Not One-Size-Fits-All
Buffer drops a day but must make adjustments along the way.
Back in 2019, someone at Buffer saw a news story about the four-day workweek and dropped it into the company’s Slack. “Wouldn’t this be cool?” they said. That’s typical at Buffer, which builds social media tools for businesses and prides itself on an experimental and participatory culture. The idea picked up steam, and Buffer decided to try it for a month — “but it was more like a half-day off on Friday, so classic summer hours,” says Nicole Miller, Buffer’s director of people. That was that.
Then the pandemic arrived and stretched employees thin. The idea of a four-day workweek came up again, this time more seriously. “We wanted to make sure people felt supported,” Miller says. So Buffer treated the four-day workweek as a defined, one-month experiment. It surveyed its 85 employees, looked at stress levels, productivity, and other metrics, and also measured the results of their work — say, comparing the number of lines of code written before and during the experiment. The result: People got the same amount done despite working fewer hours and they were happier. So Buffer kept extending the experiment until it started to feel permanent.
There were still plenty of things to fix, however. At first Buffer gave everyone Wednesdays off, thinking it would break the week up nicely, but that made work feel sporadic and created a large gap where people in different time zones didn’t overlap. Now employees either take Friday off or, if they’d like, work five shorter days instead. (About 20% of the company takes the five-day option.) The exception is those in customer support, whose days off must be staggered so there’s no lapse in responding to customers’ needs.
Then there’s the question of how people achieved all this efficiency. After all, they were doing five days’ worth of work in four days—so what were they no longer doing with their time? “Socialization,” answers Miller. “They stopped spending as much time in Slack and hanging out.” In other words, that created an unintended consequence: “We saw that at the end of 2021, people were feeling very disengaged from one another.” That inefficient hang-out time created useful bonds, and Buffer is now exploring how to replicate it with a series of smaller events.
Buffer also worried that, as team members pushed to be more efficient, they’d overstress themselves. “So we’ve been really specific in defining what a full workweek looks like,” Miller says. That’s especially important for their customer support team, who tracks progress by the number of tickets rather than by project.
Despite the bumps, Miller says that employees mostly rave about their schedule — and roughly 90% of the team says they feel just as productive as before the change. They call their three-day weekends “restorative.” Many use their days off to work on personal projects, including writing a book, building an app, and learning new skills. And now, Miller says, she’s seeing it pay off as a retention strategy too. Employees are hesitant to leave and go work somewhere with a five-day week.
“I think it would take a lot,” Miller says. “I’ve heard this from another teammate too, who told me it would take another $100,000 of salary to make up for that fifth day.”
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