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4-day workweeks can’t work without deep work

One of the biggest misconceptions about the 4-day workweek is that it’s as simple as cutting a day from your company’s typical schedule. It’s not that easy. If you want to move to a 32h week and still be successful, you’ll have to master one thing first: Deep work.

You can’t cut a workday without changing how you work

Most businesses can’t expect to reduce their working week by 20% without fundamentally rethinking how that business operates. If you keep doing what you’re doing but just cut a day, your 4-day workweek experiment will fail.

You can’t shift to a 4-day work week without rethinking how you do work.

Successfully implementing a 4-day workweek requires a shift in how we perceive and approach work itself. It may sound harsh, but a significant amount of the “work” we do during an average week is perfunctory at best and performative at worst. This can be hard for some people to accept because, culturally, subjective value judgments about “work ethic” are often intrinsically linked to our sense of self. Hard work is perceived as virtuous, whereas seeking to work less is often interpreted as “laziness.”

Recent data shows that most salaried employees do only three hours (or less) of meaningfully productive work per day. That same data also shows that working longer hours often has a detrimental impact on the quality of work produced. Some companies struggle to recognize this and respond to these challenges by enforcing draconian measures that track employees’ computer use, limit breaks, enforce mandatory overtime to compensate for “downtime,” and other controls that punish workers in the pursuit of productivity gains.

Some companies, however, come at this from the opposite angle. Rather than focusing on the number of hours worked—or the time you spent in your seat—they’re focusing on outcomes or the quality of work produced. For many of these companies, the concept of deep work is fundamental to this mindset.

In his 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport describes deep work as:

“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Deep work is the work we hire people to do; the specializations and expertise that define careers and helps businesses grow. Deep work is what a writer does when they write or an artist does when they paint or, in the software world, what a developer does when they write code. By contrast, much of the work that detracts from deep work—the emails, the meetings, the tedious but vital administrative tasks—could be considered “shallow” work. There’s no getting around the necessity of shallow work, but it’s not why we hire people. When you’re looking to reduce work time, you have to figure out how your team can use the remaining time in the most efficient way, and optimizing for deep work is the key.

Periods of uninterrupted time to think and concentrate is crucial to the concept of the 4-day workweek. This cannot happen accidentally—it must be treated as an organizational priority.

Enabling deep work is crucial to the success of a 4-day workweek

Wildbit first started experimenting with a 4-day workweek in 2017, and since then, it’s become a fundamental part of who we are as an organization and how we work as a team. People ask us about our experiences with a 4-day week all the time, and—understandably—one of the most common questions we get is how other companies can implement a 4-day week and succeed. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and our work over the past few years, and we’ve found that there are five main strategies that have laid the groundwork for our success.

1. Give your team the flexibility they need

Different people work in different ways, especially when it comes to prolonged periods of focused concentration. This is why flexibility is critical in creating an environment in which deep work can happen.

If people do their best work early in the morning, they should be able to do so. If other team members are night owls who find it easier to focus later in the evening, let them. There may be some administrative considerations to think about, such as how much overlap there should be between the schedules of team members across different time zones, but generally speaking, your team should have the freedom to set their own hours and do their work in a way that aligns with how they work and the rest of their lives.

This kind of flexibility isn’t just about scheduling, however. It’s about trusting your team to get the job done, and that they know best when and how that should happen. This can be a difficult transition for managers used to rigid schedules and top-down management. That said, many people respond positively to having greater agency over their work, and more autonomy often translates into greater job satisfaction and higher productivity. Trust your team and give them the support they need to create their own schedules.

At Wildbit, we believe that we can expect individuals to be responsible for their own productivity only if we create an environment where they can maximize their focus. It's a mutual agreement. We promise to give you all the flexibility you need if you promise to do really good work when you can.

2. Avoid the day-to-day distractions that interrupt your team’s flow

Constant distractions are one of the major impediments to deep work, which is why you should be ruthless about trying to minimize them. This doesn’t just mean being deliberate about scheduling meetings. It also means being mindful about which situations require immediate attention—and which don’t.

Is this question worth a Slack message that might interrupt your coworker? Or could this be an email that your colleague can respond to later? Plus, to protect your own deep work times, be disciplined about when and how to respond to external distractions, such as email.

This will only work if your team is encouraged to set firm boundaries. Employees need to know that it’s okay to delay responding to an email if they’re in a period of deep work, not left to guess or infer. We’ve found it’s important to be just as intentional about communicating these values as we are about limiting distractions, so be sure to demonstrate these behaviors as a manager and proactively let employees know that such boundaries are positive.

3. Plan intentionally and consistently

Leaders aren’t always aware of how their actions can contribute towards chaos and confusion. Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, observed that leaders often—and unintentionally—waste employees’ time: “They make offhand comments and don’t consider that their employees may interpret them as commands.”

When we evaluated what needed to change as part of introducing a 32-hour workweek, we realized that we, too, created noise for our team without realizing it. It would not be uncommon for one of us to send a Sunday-night email with that next great idea, leading the team to wonder, "Am I changing direction now? What's going on here?". These distractions and feelings of uncertainty are the nemesis of deep work.

As we introduced the 32-hour workweek, we also implemented a company-wide cadence of strategic planning and deep work time. At the beginning of each quarter, we come together to plan and prioritize. During this time, no actual work is getting done. We’re focused on strategy, collaborative planning, and resolving questions in real-time. By the end of the planning phase, the entire team is on the same page about what we want to achieve—and for the rest of the quarter, we focus on executing the work.

4. Empower small, independent teams

Deep work manifests differently from one team to another and from one person to another. If you’re working in a big team, it’s much harder to find a rhythm that accommodates everyone’s deep work preferences.

That’s why here at Wildbit, we create small, independent project teams that focus on the different goals we’ve set for the quarter. Depending on the type of project, we might have team members across engineering, design, QA, or marketing and customer success come together, but in general, those teams are no bigger than 5 people. These small autonomous teams can move quickly and make decisions independently of other teams. But most importantly, they can set their own terms to facilitate deep, focused work.

5. Prioritize what really matters

Cultivating a culture in which deep work is sacred means being comfortable saying “no.”

Just as individual teams should be given the autonomy to make decisions that facilitate deep work, they should also be encouraged to prioritize what really matters. This might translate to opting out of meetings that aren’t essential or focusing on one project over another. This may feel uncomfortable initially, but it’s not about “skipping” work—it’s about identifying what really matters to specific teams and giving them the freedom to do what’s best for that team and focus on work that will have the biggest impact.

Prioritization also matters at the organizational level. Just as individual teams can and should prioritize what really matters to them, companies need to think strategically and focus on priorities that will help the business succeed; if a company is focused on the wrong things, it doesn’t matter how lean, smart, or productive individual teams might be.

Looking over the five points above, some people might think that their company already does all of this within the context of a traditional workweek. Why not optimize for these factors and stick to a five-day week? Because doing so overlooks one of the most important aspects behind deep work and the four-day workweek: rest.

Rest is a crucial aspect of deep, focused work

Just as we need to be intentional about creating space for knowledge workers to engage in deep, uninterrupted work, we also need to be just as intentional about giving workers the time and space they need to truly rest and recharge. This isn’t just about productivity. It’s about prioritizing an individual’s whole self, not just their work—a vital aspect of people-first operations.

Adequate rest is the direct counterbalance to deep, focused work. You cannot have one without the other. Acknowledging this means recognizing our limitations as human beings.

We’re not built to focus intently for 50 or 60 hours a week—it’s just not practical or realistic.

Watch Natalie's full talk on the Tugboat Institute's website →

In addition to facilitating deep, focused work, a third day off every week can have a range of positive impacts for both employers and employees, including increased productivity, reduced costs, healthier employees, and improved employee happiness and satisfaction. But there’s another, often-overlooked benefit of a third day off every week–time for our brains to subconsciously tackle the most difficult, vexing problems we encounter during the course of our work, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “intelligent cognitive rest.”

Different parts of the brain handle different cognitive functions depending on whether we’re actively focusing on the task at hand. Neuroscientists refer to the part of the brain that handles unfocused thought as the default mode network. This part of the brain is most active during times when the mind isn’t actively focusing on a specific task, a state known as wakeful rest. The default mode network consumes a full 20% of the body’s energy while at rest and is responsible for forging connections between ideas and memories, stimulating creative thought, and subconsciously analyzing information gathered during periods of active focus.

Perhaps surprisingly, actively focusing on a task only uses 5% more energy than intelligent cognitive rest, which reveals just how hard our brains are actually working when our minds are supposedly wandering. Giving our brains time to rest and process information can have a powerful impact on our problem-solving capabilities, and a three-day weekend allows us to take advantage of this subconscious thought when we return to a focused state of deep work. This is why we advocate for four days of work followed by three days of rest, as opposed to taking an additional day off in the middle of the workweek.

When we talk about rest, we don’t just mean in the context of three-day weekends. It can be just as important—and beneficial—to rest during the course of a workday. Giving ourselves time to think away from the distractions of a screen can stimulate creative thought and help us solve difficult problems. This is because actively focusing on a problem or task deactivates the default mode network, which is why we often have “breakthrough” ideas while showering or walking.

Work hard, rest hard

If deep work is fundamental to the concept of a 4-day workweek, then “deep rest” is just as important.

Challenging the five-day workweek—a paradigm that has dominated and shaped workplace culture for the better part of a century—will take time. Making the decision to actively reduce the length of the workweek can be difficult, and the financial and economic pressures are very real for new and established companies alike. But the fundamental nature of work is changing rapidly, and systems first conceived during the Industrial Revolution are simply no longer fit for purpose in the world of knowledge work.

We’ve proven that companies can approach work in a different way while building growing, profitable businesses that put people first, and there are dozens more that have done the same. We want to encourage other businesses to do the same, and we hope you’ll join us as we continue to learn, grow, and support one another.

Learn more about the 4-day workweek

What other companies have already moved to the 4-day workweek? And should your team do the same?

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Special thanks to the folks at Animalz for their help creating this post.