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What we've learned from working a four day week

A (not-so) brief guide to making condensed working hours, work

We get a lot of enquiries from organisations who heard that we work a four day week and want to know more about how it works for us, so that they can try and implement it for their staff. We wanted to reflect on our working patterns and what they mean for our company, to help anyone who might be thinking about reducing their company’s working week.

a graphic of a calendar showing our ‘standard’ work week

What our week looks like

We are open as a studio from Monday to Thursday every week. For us, this means these are the only times we’ll ever schedule client-facing meetings, and when we expect all staff to work the majority of their hours. In addition to being a four day week company, we also operate with shorter days, so a full time week is four days of six working hours, or 24 hours total.

We work in cycles of three weeks, focusing most intensely on one specific project for two weeks, with a buffer week in-between to tidy up loose ends and prepare for the next two week sprint. This works like time-blocking but on a larger scale – it helps us all get on the same page, stay focused, and make sure we’re allocating enough time to each project.

It’s more than just a condensed schedule

Because we’re a disabled-led company which aims to be as accessible as possible for our staff, we know that it can be difficult for disabled people (or people with caring responsibilities, for example) to work to a consistent schedule. 23% of working-age adults in the UK are disabled, and around 9% of the population provide unpaid care, which means it’s highly likely that some of the people on your staff would benefit from the opportunity to work more flexibly. Consistent and rigid working doesn’t allow for fluctuating energy and focus, the ability to respond to emergent needs, or a feeling of agency over one’s own time. Informed by this, we have flexible working which means staff have choice and responsibility over when they schedule their working hours.

Working flexibly requires a high degree of communication and trust between team members. We check in with our plans for the week every Monday, and let others know when we’re planning to be away, as well as what our capacity is looking like, both emotionally and physically, on a regular basis. We have ‘core hours’ each day, between 11am and 3pm, where all members of staff aim to make themselves available for key meetings and project planning. We hold daily stand-ups to connect and make visible what everyone is focusing on that day, as well as having quick check-ins at the start of other meetings to highlight the need to be responsive and understanding of others’ capacity.

A lot of our staff work part time hours, which allows for quite a bit of additional capacity to flex on top of our working practices. This means that someone who is contracted for a 0.75 FTE role (three days, or 18 hours per week) is free to split those hours over the full four days if they wish, if it means they’re able to focus better. Obviously this means that tracking time worked each week, as well as paid and unpaid leave, can get a little complicated – we use a time tracking software called Clockify to keep on top of that.

As we all work remotely as individuals based around the UK, we have ongoing open channels of asynchronous communication. We have a staff area of our Discord server, which is where we do the bulk of our communication across all teams and projects. Our daily stand-ups are a key part of keeping everyone on the same page, as well as our shared task database in Notion and tickets in GitHub. When working totally remotely, the need for absolutely impeccable communication, trust, and openness increases, which is only compounded by having a shorter working week as any delays or miscommunications can be costly.

We’re always open to change, based on what we learn as we go

We’re committed to being reflexive in our working practices – at the end of every cycle we have a retrospective to talk about what went well, what could have gone better, and what we need to change going forwards. We also hold monthly Ways of Working meetings which the whole company is asked to attend, where we discuss what’s going well and what we might be able to do better in terms of our structure and how this manifests in our day-to-day work. A big part of the trust inherent in flexible, remote working is understanding what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to change, which in turn relies on honest and open communication between all staff at all stages of a project, cycle, or even any given day.

As part of our commitment to liberatory practices, we’ve been shoring up our internal policies and procedures to make them more transparent, measured, and sustainable both for employees and the company. This means we’ve been looking at how much paid and unpaid leave we can afford to offer for sickness, holiday, and other circumstances, and what proportion of it can be paid in full. Realistic appraisal of the capacity of the organisation is an important part of adjusting working hours – working a condensed week has a material impact on the time available, and how “valuable” that time is to the company.

We want to live in a world where our lives aren’t directly translated into a monetary value, down to the minute. Unfortunately the material reality of living and operating a business in a capitalist society requires that this calculation be done on some level. By implementing a condensed, flexible, remote working pattern, we go as far as we can afford to support our staff in feeling empowered to put their life first, not their job. In return, we know that every member of staff needs to commit to open, honest communication, and a honest effort to use their ‘on the clock’ time effectively in order to deliver the work we know we’re capable of delivering.

Decoupling time from monetary value is one of the key issues impacting activist organising and socially engaged work at every level. In order to have the material resources to be able to support each other, not burn out, care for ourselves and our loved ones, the world asks us for as much as we can possibly give it, for as little as possible in return. By valuing the time of yourself and your employees more highly (by adopting a condensed working week), you risk alienating clients and collaborators who don’t see the ‘justification’ for a higher spend per hour, which in turn means you (as an organisation) could have fewer material resources by which to do the work and enact care. It’s a complex equation which needs to be navigated purposefully on a case-by-case basis, looking at the material reality of what you would like to offer compared with what you can afford.

Transitioning from a 5 day week

We actually started as a four-day-week company from the very beginning, so can’t advise on what it might be like for a company which currently works over five days. We can however, comment on the things which we have to keep a close eye on, due to our condensed hours.

Meetings where everyone needs to be there need to be kept to a minimum (and does everyone really need to be there?)

We talked about decoupling time from monetary value, but when it comes down to it, whole company meetings are actually really expensive. We try and limit them to just key moments – daily stand ups, planning longer term projects or cycles, and coming together to talk about our working practices. Other meetings will just involve the people who really need to be there, to make sure everyone is able to use the time they have effectively. We define ‘needing to be there’ as being directly involved in the project at hand (in a time sensitive way – if you’re not working on it right now, you can catch up later), being able to offer unique insight into a problem or idea, or needing to take detailed notes while others discuss a complicated topic or carry out user research and testing. We often actively tell members of staff not to come to meetings if we know they won’t be needed!

Time blocking can be a great hack to make sure you make time for everything on your list

Time blocking is setting aside chunks of time for specific, focused work (and sticking to it!). If you know you’ve blocked out time just for replying to emails, for example, it makes it quite a bit easier to focus more deeply and get more done in that ‘block’ of time. It also gives you peace of mind that you don’t need to get back to that notification right away if you know you’ll spend an hour going through them later that day. Task switching can be a messy business, but if you’ve planned out exactly what needs to be done and how much time you’re able to spend on it, this burden is reduced. This can be replicated on a larger scale by having dedicated cycles, sprints, or blocks of time for the whole team to work on a specific project, knowing that other projects have enough time allocated to them later on.

Taking a day off can reduce your weekly capacity by quite a bit

For similar reasons to why meetings are suddenly incredibly expensive uses of everyone’s time, if you’re only working four days and have to take one off, suddenly your week has reduced by 1/4. For those who work part time, a day off is an even larger proportion of their week. We plan for this as a studio by estimating our capacity based on planned time off at the start of every cycle. It helps us keep our expectations in check about what it’s realistic to achieve in the time we have.

Have a procedure for re-acclimatising to the working week after a long weekend

We use hub pages and databases in Notion to keep track of ongoing projects and tasks. Hub pages can serve as a handy one-stop-shop to re-acclimatise to the things you have on the go. My hub page shows me: projects I’m leading, tasks which are assigned to me, documents i’m drafting, places people have mentioned me by name, and meetings I’ve attended recently. We also have a whole-studio task database which gets filtered into our cycle planning documents automatically. This lets us get a quick overview of what’s in progress, what’s stuck, and who’s working on what. All hail Notion!

Be kind to yourself and don’t over-promise

If you’re used to the hustle and grind of the 40 hour week, you might overestimate exactly how much you can (and should) get done in a week. It’s important to be realistic when project planning to make sure you don’t over-commit, especially if you’re used to having a little bit of extra time to play with. It’s ok if something takes a bit longer to get finished if it means it was made sustainably – it’s like comparing slow, handmade clothing with fast fashion. Sure, fast fashion buys might be shipped to you overnight and look ok, but a lot of people were exploited in its chain of production and it doesn’t fit you that well…

Decouple time from monetary value (as far as possible)

The nature of condensed working means that practically, each minute of an employee’s time has a higher ‘cost’ to the company. It’s hard to avoid falling into the trap of equating your time directly with a financial value, but we’ve found that quoting for work based on deliverables rather than time spent is a way to ensure that clients and collaborators can be on the same page.

Be honest about how much of your time is actually spent working

The nature of a four day week means that you are necessarily more focused, which can translate to much more getting done in a shorter amount of time, or at the very least, being honest about how much of your work time is genuinely productive. To put it bluntly, we cut the crap! There’s no need to waste an hour messing about with a photocopier or clicking about in your emails because you’ve reached the end of your useful focus, or simply have some time to fill.

This honest treatment of productive time goes hand in hand with remote working – we don’t ask staff to waste time and energy on commuting, or performing sociability at the same time as trying to concentrate, so staff in turn don’t feel the need to pretend they’re spending every second of 40 hours performing productivity towards the “company’s best interests”. With research indicating that the maximum amount someone can focus in a day sits around four to five hours – who really does more than 24 hours or so of productive work in a week?

Flexibility, communication and trust is really the key

If you don’t have good communication practices in place at your company, you won’t feel the benefits of a condensed working week. Make time and space to explicitly ask staff to communicate their plans, needs, and intent at the start of any unit of work – this could mean once a week, once a cycle, or even once a day. Keeping the channels of communication open is vital to ensure time is being used effectively (and also to notice if someone’s overstretching themself, putting way too much time into something small, or if they should really be taking time off but are trying to cram everything in on top).

What we do with our extra day

Different people have different approaches to the extra time afforded by condensed working hours. In our studio, we see staff using their time to run participatory interdisciplinary art studios, teach at universities, run craft fairs, care for dependents, and care for themselves. For some employers, it might be hard to consider encouraging staff to have projects in their personal time! For us it’s totally natural – our studio work emerged from activist organising, which is a landscape full of people volunteering their spare time towards worthy causes. We believe (and see the evidence in our day-to-day practice!) that our studio is strengthened by a team with diverse interests, time to care for themselves and their families, and deep connections with communities and networks outside of their job.

It’s a bit like having a secure attachment style. We trust our staff to manage their time and carry out their commitment to the studio as well as their side hustle, passion project, or rest, and in return our staff feel confident to use studio time to the best of their ability and trust the studio to make decisions which balance their needs with studio capacity. We have a sense of shared responsibility over what we do – everyone is aware that the studio is limited by material constraints on the conditions it can offer, and wants to work to keep things favourable for all of us.

We don’t dream of selling our labour, and the world we’re working towards wouldn’t require that for survival, but under the current system we have no choice. We do, however, have a choice about how we use our hard-won material gains to support and uplift those we work with. Every business with employees has choices about how to make said employees’ material conditions better, which happens through building genuine trust, transparency, and communication at all levels. Your staff were hired because you recognised their skill – give them the agency to feel confident putting their best foot forwards, and to take the time they need to recuperate.

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