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4-day workweeks: the experiment that never stopped

Sometimes, you make a change and stick with it for so long that you forget how things were before. That's how our 4-day workweeks here at Wildbit have felt. It's not until you catch up with a former colleague or talk to a family member that it hits you: working 32 hours per week is an unusual approach, and a luxury many people would love to experience. Summarizing our takeaways on working four days a week for the last 3+ years was a good exercise for our team.

Here at Wildbit, we've often experimented with how we work. Three years ago, we decided to try a big change: 4-day workweeks.

We’ve always wanted to maximize our team's ability to have a life outside of work. That started with only working 40 hours a week, which wasn’t typically something you bragged about in the tech space (in fact, it's usually the opposite). Then, after reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, our CEO and co-founder Natalie Nagele wanted to take it a step further.

Newport talks about how our brain is a muscle that gets fatigued after heavy use. He believes that each person can do four hours of deep, focused work in a day. If that’s the case, then what happens in the other 20 hours of the standard workweek? Could we shorten the workweek and focus on maximizing what human beings are really good at (creativity, collaboration, problem-solving) and offload everything else?

Three and a half years later, we appear to have the answer. What started as a short-term experiment has evolved into the regular way of doing things here at Wildbit.

The initial experiment

We started our experiment with 4-day workweeks in the spring of 2017. Basecamp had already implemented their summer hours, which let staff take every Friday off from May through August. With Basecamp as inspiration, we decided to give it a try for a few months ourselves.

You could describe the initial reaction from the team as “cautious optimism.” A long weekend every week sounds inviting. But could we actually get all our work done in less time? We didn’t want to lengthen the other four days to “make up” for having Friday off (four 10-hour days), so everything needed to fit into 32 hours (four 8-hour days).

During the rollout, there were a lot of candid discussions. Every few weeks, Natalie checked in and asked how the team was feeling. If there was any anxiety about completing a task, we talked through it as a team to come up with a solution.

At the end of the experiment, we felt more productive and believed the quality of our work had improved, so we kept going with it.

You have to have your priorities straight if you want to have the same impact in fewer days a week. We began to ask, “what are we working on, and why?”

What we’ve gained

We wouldn’t still be doing 4-day workweeks if they weren’t worth it. Before sharing how to be successful with a shorter workweek, it's important to point out why you'd want to in the first place. Here’s what we’ve gained from working less with more intention.

Work/life balance

It's a cliché term now, but a balanced life is critical to functioning at your best. Unsurprisingly, working less frees up time for the team to experience more outside of work. Our company exists for our team, and everyone's better off when they have time to do what they love with the ones they love.

Higher-quality work

Something magical happens when you consciously choose tasks and create space for uninterrupted work — more gets done.

Not only do we get more work done now, but we also do better work. Your brain gets to recharge when there’s a consistent three-day rest period. Since problems marinate in our minds over the weekend, we usually come in on Monday morning with an idea of how to solve it.

Recognition and community

We don’t do 4-day workweeks to get a pat on the back from others. However, it’s always nice to connect with people on something you’re passionate about. We’ve found that our customers respect how much we care about our team, and we’re able to share our experiences to help others.

Fulfilling work and progress

As CEO, Natalie believes a vital part of her job is to create an environment where people can get their best work done and push themselves past their comfort zone. When you support your team in every way you can and give them space to grow, everyone is more fulfilled. That commitment to excellence then radiates into the products we send out to the world.

How you can successfully move to a 4-day workweek

The idea of a 4-day workweek sounds romantic, but like any great relationship or project, you have to put in the work to make it work. There are several key things to consider in order to keep a company healthy while working only 32 hours a week.

Be purposeful with everything you choose to work on

You have to have your priorities straight if you want to have the same impact in less time. We began to ask, “what are we working on, and why?”

This isn’t a one-and-done process, either. We continuously reflect on the larger purpose of our work, and what type of work is meaningful to our customers, our communities, and ourselves. If something is no longer serving the team or customers, then it’s time to reevaluate.

Embrace asynchronous communication

Meetings are disruptive, period. Sure, they’re sometimes necessary and valuable. But anyone who’s thought “that meeting could have been an email” already understands the value of asynchronous communication.

The time spent preparing, having the call, and getting back into a state of deep work can lower productivity, not to mention mess with someone’s day. Meetings can be especially disruptive when you’re planning across time zones.

Instead of meetings, we use emails, Slack messages, and automated check-ins. We have guidelines for how to request feedback and when it makes sense to interrupt someone with a direct message. It's not perfect, but by defaulting to async, our team is mindful of the attention of others.

Find your procrastination enablers

Distractions happen, but we’ve learned that sometimes the biggest threats to deep work are hiding in plain sight. During a team retreat in 2018, Slack kept coming up in discussions about what takes us away from focused work. So we ditched it.

For a week, we stopped using public or shared channels. We realized that Slack was a procrastination enabler, driving a constant itch to check-in or update the team. While we’re back to using Slack, the break gave us some much-needed perspective on habits that interrupt deep work.

Automate tasks that don’t need a human perspective

Time and attention are valuable resources. That’s why we aim to empower humans to do essential work and automate the rest. If we automate something small, like expense reporting, it can save someone an hour a week. While it’s small, that adds up.

Create the right environment

We don’t do open floor plans, and remote teams can’t work out of a coffee shop four days a week. For a 4-day workweek to work, you have to create a quiet space. As more families work at home together, the emotional dynamic is just as important. Creating space for conversation and committing to flexibility are a few ways that companies can be people-first during COVID-19.

Wildbit provides a home office stipend to help our team build the right kind of environment that enables focused work.

Challenges and pushback

Let’s take a moment away from the sunshine and rainbows of 4-day workweeks to talk logistics. There have been some adaptations and lessons learned since we first started.

People don’t know what to do with their free day at first

The 4-day workweek at Wildbit is something that new hires are aware of and excited about, but might not necessarily believe until they experience it. During new hire onboarding calls, we sometimes hear, “I’m going to work on Fridays because I love my job. What am I supposed to do with that day off?” After talking about their interests, we usually find something they get excited about.

And it’s not just about having more leisure time. That fifth day is huge for parents who have been hit hard by COVID-19. And as Wildbit is a people-first business, we encourage our team to use that fifth day to make an impact in the communities they care about. Both a three-day weekend at the lake cabin and volunteering with a favorite charity are perfect uses of that additional day off.

Some functions, like customer support, need Friday representation

Just because we have a 4-day workweek doesn’t mean customers stop needing us on Fridays. So, we’ve adopted a policy where the customer support team trades off between Mondays and Fridays off. That way, there’s support in essential functions five days a week.

Extra communication is required to get through busy periods

We still occasionally question our shorter workweek, even three years in. It’s made us realize how important communication is. If someone is concerned about getting everything done, they need to talk to their team to shift priorities or share responsibilities.

How our workflow might evolve

The past few years of shorter workweeks have been fulfilling, and it won't be the end of our experiments. What else will we try down the road?

Even shorter or more flexible hours

As long as work gets done, it doesn't matter how long it takes. Ideally, we set clear goals, and we work on them as our brain and ability allow us to. Perhaps that looks like working on Fridays, but fewer hours each day. Or maybe it's an eight-hour day, and then a day off, and then a two-hour day. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know we want to empower each individual to be productive, in addition to us as a company.

A greater commitment to impact

Black lives matter and climate change are real, and as humans on Earth, it's our responsibility to address both. Last year we measured Wildbit’s environmental impact and set forth steps to reduce our carbon footprint.

What if we can take it a step further? Imagine if everyone at Wildbit used a bit of their time off each week to give back to their community. What could teams and companies achieve if they took on the responsibility of making their cities more inclusive, safe, and conscious?

Adopting a people-first perspective is something we’re passionate about at Wildbit, and we hope to see more companies embrace this approach. We've shared a little more about the topic as well as a list of other companies who have also adopted the 4-day workweek.

If you're interested in hearing more about this, Natalie has shared on the topic on various podcasts and publications like NPR, Escape Velocity, Mailchimp's Courier, and Rework. Check out our Press page for those and a lot more!