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Fewer meetings, less ‘mommy guilt,’ and more efficiencies: Executives explain how 4-day workweeks reshaped their lives

May 30, 2022, 8:00 PM UTC

In 2017, Andrew Barnes, CEO of New Zealand trust and estate planning firm Perpetual Guardian, realized just how much time he and his colleagues were wasting at work. Barnes had read an article pointing out that workers in the U.K. were only productive for 2.5 hours per day. Canadian workers were even less effective, working only 1.5 productive hours per day despite their five-day, 40-hour workweeks.

“So I gave my staff the challenge to rethink how they structured their workdays so that if they could do five days’ work in four days, I would get them that other day off,” Barnes says. His board of directors hated the idea. “They thought it was not going to work,” he says. But then he showed the board and other Perpetual Guardian leaders the results of the trial. Barnes’s employees were producing 25% more work when working four days per week than they were when working five.

Since then Barnes has become a four-day week evangelist, writing a book on the subject called The 4 Day Week and founding 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit entity advising companies on transitioning to four-day workweeks. In 2018 and 2019, Barnes’s four-day week policy intrigued business executives but most still viewed the idea as too radical to implement themselves. But then the pandemic hit, which introduced work-from-home flexibility to office workers. The Great Resignation pushed workers to re-think their relationships with their employers.

COVID-19 showed companies that “they could change faster and more profoundly than they ever thought possible—and that challenged them to think about how the future of work could be made better,” says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, program director at 4 Day Week and author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less—Here’s How. Based on his research, Pang estimates that before the COVID outbreak in 2020 only 100 companies globally had adopted a four-day workweek. He claims that in the last two years, that figure has doubled. 4 Day Week Global estimates that by the end of this year more than 10,000 workers globally will have participated in the organization’s four-day workweek trial program.

In some countries, governments are leading the charge for four-day workweeks. In Iceland, 86% of the country’s workforce is now working shorter hours after the government experimented with 2,500 government employees working for four days per week instead of five, according to research firm Autonomy. Scotland, Japan, Spain, and Belgium have also started experimenting with some government workers switching to four-day weeks. These trials represent a tiny drop in the global labor pool, but Pang argues the early results of them are clear.

The “viability, practicality and benefits of the four-day week are no longer matters up for dispute,” he says. “Many companies have made it work—and have done so profitably.” Many of the firms that have adopted four-day workweeks successfully are small- or medium-sized professional services firms in industries like tech, design, or marketing. But Barnes insists a shortened workweek can yield bottom-line benefits in many sectors.

“People will hear our message and say, well, that’s great, but it wouldn’t work in this company or that industry,” says Barnes. “The reality is it works well at Panasonic [in making electronics] or Volkswagen manufacturing cars [in the 1990s], or [consumer goods manufacturer] Unilever. Microsoft’s trial was a great success in Japan.”

Executives from four companies told Fortune what happened when they tried switching to a four-day workweek during the pandemic, how they structure their days differently now than before, and the fears they had as they approached the new way of working. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

A day to slow down

Sean Firko is the vice president of business development at creative communications agency Praytell
Courtesy of 4 Day Week Global

Sean Firko is the vice president of business development at creative communications agency Praytell in New York City. Praytell employs 173 people.

The four-day workweek at Praytell started during the pandemic. March 2020 was a major shock to our organization. Some business just flatlined: we parted ways with some partners and clients and lost a chunk of revenue. We instituted the four-day week in response to fewer active projects and the fact that it was a hard time for everyone. It was a natural moment for our company to try to give the four-day week a shot, at a time when most businesses were in flux. 

There was hesitation and skittishness in the company, especially at the leadership and finance levels. ‘Are clients going to bail at volume? Will the four-day week put us at a disadvantage compared to competitors? Can we sustain this from a business standpoint, and withstand any revenue hits?’ they asked. We found almost the opposite to be true. The response from our clients has been positive: they said they felt more energy from our teams. As a creative agency, we made sure that we never had any drop in coverage. In our first trial, some staff worked Monday through Thursdays, others Tuesdays to Fridays. We’re in the service business, so we were intentional in ensuring that service didn’t lapse at any point. 

There was a two-to-three month adjustment period for our company. We were still figuring things out in the beginning. But soon, the company, almost unanimously, said ‘we want to do this. It makes sense for the industry, our agency, and workplaces in general.’ At the four-month point, 96% of company staff said they wanted to keep the policy.

At Praytell, I now look after all new business that flows into the agency. I’m fully aware that there’s a kind of urgency and unpredictability in working with potential new clients—and that things will happen on a Friday. I do find myself putting in hours on Fridays. I’ll read, research, listen to podcasts to better understand clients, and I might work on some strategy slides. But I know that if any message or email comes through, it’s not a fire drill—it’s a day to slow down and build a working style that’s best for me.

Finding inefficiencies

Nick Yulman is the director of outreach at the online crowdfunding firm Kickstarter
Courtesy of 4 Day Week Global

Nick Yulman is the director of outreach at the online crowdfunding firm Kickstarter in New York City. Kickstarter has 69 employees.

Kickstarter initiated a four-day workweek pilot program that started in April. I was intrigued and excited when it was announced: I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to have more personal time while remaining engaged and enjoying your job. 

My role at Kickstarter is director of outreach. I lead a team that works with creators across the categories we serve. The folks at this company are motivated by Kickstarter’s mandate to support creative people. We wanted to ensure the four-day week benefits staff but also positions us to succeed in our mission. 

The four-day week isn’t 40 hours crammed into four days—but resetting people’s expectations to working a 32-hour week. The goal is to find efficiencies. My team and I spent over a month formally evaluating how we spent our time during four-day weeks and became more purposeful. We make sure to give external partners—like the creators we work with—context and communicate to them what we’re trying to accomplish with the four-day week. We don’t simply say: “I’m not working today.”

Being fairly new to this process, we haven’t achieved the point where everyone is working 32-hour weeks. Sometimes I check in on work after putting my kids to bed or check in on a Friday (the first day of our weekend). But I haven’t had days where my entire Friday turns into a workday. Now, on Thursday afternoons, there’s the feeling that it’s the end of the week. People know that if you need to ask for something, Thursdays are the time to do it. 

It’s been great to have an extra day to spend with my kids, who are about to turn 7 and 3. I also have my own creative world—much like many of the people at Kickstarter who come to the company from being artists, designers, and other creatives. I work with musical robots, building acoustic instruments that are computer-controlled. These robots have been used in installations at museums and galleries, and lately, I’ve also tested them for musicians and composers. Now, I can think about Fridays as a time to spend in my [robot] workshop.

Kickstarter is also a fully remote company. Working remotely and four days a week forces you to be devoted to work for a certain period of time; a good antidote that mitigates the potential for work to spill over into your personal life at home.

Empowered

Stephanie Yang is the senior counsel of employment and litigation at the online thrift store thredUP in Oakland
Stephanie Yang is the senior counsel of employment and litigation at the online thrift store thredUP in Oakland, California, USA. ThredUP employs 2,894 people.
Courtesy of 4 Day Week Global

Stephanie Yang is the senior counsel of employment and litigation at the online thrift store thredUP in Oakland, California. ThredUP employs 2,894 people.

When I joined thredUP last September, I was a bit suspicious of the company’s four-day week policy. I wasn’t sure if it was something people actually took advantage of. I thought, ‘Is this for real?’ 

I’ve discovered that the four-day workweek policy lets us shape flexible schedules and helps us work better. On Mondays to Thursdays, I’m conscientious of being efficient and getting my key priorities done. These are communication-heavy days, where I’m constantly talking to people. On Tuesdays, I block out a big chunk of the day for getting ‘quiet work’ done—like drafting, reviewing documents, and negotiating contracts. By Friday, email traffic significantly decreases. The external partners I work with… none of them are frantically trying to find me on a Friday. If I anticipate they need something by a Friday, I’ll try to get them to it in advance. Everyone is mindful of the four-day workweek policy. 

It’s very different from my previous employers. When I worked at large private practice law firms, the central component of performance was how many hours you bill and how much revenue you’re originating for the firm. Here, it’s not ‘work for work’s sake.’ It’s all about output and results—which I’ve found very liberating. Now, I don’t feel the pressure to fill up my Fridays with work. If there are time-sensitive projects, however, I’m flexible and realistic about project deadlines. I feel empowered to take that time into my own hands and fill it with other activities important to my life. 

On Fridays, I participate in my daughter’s therapy sessions. She’s 4-and-a-half years old and has moderate autism. Her therapy is only offered on weekdays. Working at big law firms didn’t offer me the opportunity to sit in on my daughter’s therapy sessions and learn what she’s working on. Since joining thredUP, I’ve seen my mental health improve. I have less mommy guilt and have become much more attuned to my daughter’s learning and developmental goals. I’ve also seen physical improvements. I’m spending much less time on my chair and in front of the computer screen, which has significantly helped with my carpal tunnel—which had gotten quite bad in my previous roles.

The skeptic

Alesya Namisova is the senior product and regulatory counsel at e-commerce firm Bolt in San Francisco
Courtesy of 4 Day Week Global

Alesya Nasimova is the senior product and regulatory counsel at e-commerce firm Bolt in San Francisco. Bolt employs 600 people.

I was definitely one of the skeptics when Bolt announced the four-day workweek this January. I believed it wouldn’t last. And I thought it’d only work for teams other than ours. We’re constantly answering calls and finishing contracts. I couldn’t imagine taking a full day off every single week! 

I remember the first time that a colleague denied my meeting request on a Friday. It was for an important project with a tight deadline. I spoke with my team leader who told me: ‘You’re ruining the experiment! We won’t know what the results are unless everyone partakes in it. So do the experiment, encourage your team to do it too, and see how it goes.

At six weeks in, I finally began taking Fridays off. The workload hasn’t decreased—but I wouldn’t say our days got longer. People took control of their schedules and time management and began finishing things on Thursday. We were attuned to the memes, you know the ones that say: ‘Stuck in another one-hour zoom meeting that could’ve been an email.’ The company cut down on the amount and time spent on meetings—or got rid of them altogether. To replace meetings, we might set up a temporary group chat to take care of an issue; once that matter was resolved, we’d get rid of that channel. If there’s an upcoming deadline, I might work on a Friday for a few hours, but I’m not sitting at my desk from 9-5. 

External attorneys and clients have been very understanding. It’s just about communication; being transparent and setting expectations about our response time. 

In the first few weeks of the trial, I binge-watched Netflix with my time off! I caught up on a bunch of shows that I never had time to watch. Then Fridays turned into a day for errands, like doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and cleaning—things I’d usually do on a Sunday to prepare for the week ahead. Now, I can enjoy a proper two-day weekend. I also took a couple of weeks to study for a privacy exam to expand my certifications. This was a great accomplishment for me; I wouldn’t have had the time to take the exam if not for the four-day week. 

Now that Bolt’s four-day week trial has turned into a permanent policy, my daughter, who’s in first grade and does something fun every Friday at her school, thinks it’s amazing that my company also does ‘fun Fridays.’ We make plans after school on Fridays, like going for lunch or going to the movies. She knows that once she gets picked up on a Friday, the weekend officially begins.

(Editors note: On Wednesday, Bolt announced that it laid off a third of its staff due to difficult “marketing conditions” and “macro challenges.” Nasimova was not among those laid off. Bolt told Fortune the layoffs “will not affect our four-day workweek policy.”)

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