Working four-day weeks

Published October 3, 2014

For the last three years, I've set our "summer hours" to Monday-Thursday from June to end of August.

It's been very popular with my employees. The Pacific Northwest is known for rain (Portland, Seattle) but the summers are incredibly gorgeous, and this gives everyone a chance to enjoy the summer more fully.

The reality, of course, is that we still need to make money to pay the bills. We're a small team (11 of us now) and we live and die by our billable hours/weeks. And I wasn't about to reduce salaries.

Challenge 1: Convincing our clients

We generally charge by the week for development work. Design is usually hourly, since there's more back-and-forth and waiting-for-response time. And since nearly every client is in a hurry to get their project done, it is important that we convince them that we will still get their projects done on time.

Surprisingly, this wasn't hard to do at all. Most clients understand the concept of "four tens" (e.g. four 10-hour workdays) and, while we didn't strictly follow that schedule (more on this later), it was the easiest way to communicate how it worked.

In fact, the most common response was "Wow, I wish we worked four-day weeks!"

Challenge 2: Increasing productivity Mon-Thu

Our goal was to work four 8-hour days, not 10-hour days. My rule of thumb is that a typical productive employee will get about four to five hours of billable client work done in a workday. That's 20-25 hours in a typical week. In order to achieve this in four days, we needed consistently 5+ hours of billable time Monday through Thursday.

To achieve this level of focus, we cut out our normal Monday-morning marathon of meetings (business development, engineering leads, scrum standups, and the like). We also reduced our open source work and internal tool development. Most also cut out social media sites except for lunchtime, although that was just a suggestion and not a policy.

In the end, we still ended up working longer hours, but these changes helped keep the days manageable.

There were definite downsides to these changes, though. I'll go over them in the Results section below.

Challenge 3: Maintaining the pace

It's easy to slip back into a 5-day workweek pace. I didn't want to have to "crack the whip" -- this was a collaborative thing, not an imposed thing, and I treat my team members as responsible adults. If the team wanted to continue it, they'd find a way to make it work. If they didn't, we could go back to five days.

When it came down to it, the team paid more attention to the pace than I did. Each person did an amazing job of focusing on their projects and turning out great work in a shorter amount of time. I never had to "crack the whip" at all.

The results

Of the 17 weeks June-September, we worked only one five day workweek.

  • June: 0 of 4 Fridays worked
  • July: 0 of 4 Fridays worked
  • August: 1 of 5 Fridays worked
  • September: 0 of 4 Fridays worked

The positives:

  • Our billable time actually increased as soon as we went to 4-day workweeks. Here are the four months before and after:graph
  • Our revenue went up accordingly
  • Every team member said they really enjoyed the schedule
  • I went to the beach a lot with my family :-)

The negatives:

  • Project management was more scattered (exacerbated by our PM leaving partway through the summer) -- this is a focus point going forward
  • Business development topics stalled for months
  • Ouropen source projectswere maintained, but significant development was put on hold
  • Sales leads weren't cultivated as much as normal (since I had less time to help with them)

Going forward

As you probably guessed from the title, we consider the four-day workweek a success. We'll work on improving our project management processes, spend a little more time on strategic things, and maybe work a Friday here and there on open source, internal projects, or fun side projects.

Do you work 4-day workweeks? Wish you did?Tell me about it on Twitter.