By Danielle Rocheleau
Halfway through 2020, our team, like many, was exhausted. Stress, health worries, social isolation, kids underfoot, and remote work were taking their toll. We sought to do something about it.
Inspired by existing literature, as well as recent ‘ah hah’ moments about our own work model assumptions, we decided to pilot a four-day workweek.
But it wasn’t something we wanted to just casually try on for size; we wanted to make sure it was the right move for the team and our business.
We knew this would not succeed if we didn’t think it through. After all, these were difficult times – everyone, Laridae included, was seeking ways to stay afloat while also responding empathetically to their teams’ needs.
To keep ourselves accountable, we chose to announce our intentions formally, we engaged researchers from nearby Trent University to study the impact and track outcomes, and we made sure to get buy-in from our staff and our clients.
TLDR: It worked
Over a six-month period, we discovered that with clear expectations regarding work hours, flexibility, communication practices, and meeting schedules, working four days instead of five was both 1) profitable for the company and 2) better for Laridae’s staff across a wide range of metrics.
In fact, our pilot was so successful that in early 2021 the Laridae team agreed to make the change permanent.
We are now sharing our experience to help support other organizations in their quest to make the workplace more empathetic, responsive, and productive.
Today’s organizations are navigating:
- The ongoing toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on teams
- The expectation by employees for more flexibility, including the option to work remotely and have greater autonomy over their time
- The challenges of attracting and retaining great people
While it’s important to continuously adapt our workplaces to ensure continuity and resilience amidst changing realities, we know a four-day week won’t necessarily work for everyone. Although we are all service providers, our circumstances for service delivery are different from many non-profit organizations.
Each workplace needs to reflect on its expectations and existing work structures before making such a radical change.
Nonetheless! There are steps and considerations within this experience that can help you reflect on what you are considering or even implementing for your team.
Our four-day rationale
By late spring 2020, leadership at Laridae noticed that employees were not settling into pandemic work life. People were experiencing serious Zoom fatigue, having trouble focusing and struggling with work blurring into their personal lives.
Laridae had already enabled flexible hours for those who wanted them. But that clearly wasn’t enough anymore — and we started to wonder if maybe it never was. Perhaps the pandemic was simply revealing flaws in the workweek that had been there all along.
Laridae is a proud, Certified B Corporation, which means it holds high standards around social and environmental sustainability. Allowing our teams to continue in this state would go against our values. As well, we risked losing valued employees while productivity was on the decline.
There were still deadlines to meet and work that needed to be done so we sought a new framework for the workweek that might help everyone be as productive, healthy, and balanced as possible.
Shorter workweek benefits
The focus of Laridae’s trial was to test productivity, motivation, and output by changing the work model so that every staff member had a paid day off each week.
All other employment conditions, including remuneration and other benefits, were to remain unchanged.
Laridae didn’t just trial a four-day workweek. We set out to test the hypothesis that we could increase our productivity in fewer available hours.
We reasoned that if we could effectively enhance our overall productivity while continuing to meet client expectations and maintain current levels of client satisfaction, we would adopt a four-day workweek as a new company-wide policy.
We believed that, if successful, additional benefits might include:
- Increased clarity, focus, and productivity
- Increased work-life balance
- Enhanced health and well-being
- Reduced stress
- Increased ability to attract and retain staff
We ran our trial with open minds and the expectation that while it might not provide all the answers, we would learn plenty! And, that it could be a big step towards making our workplace better for the people who work here.
We decided to follow a 100-80-100 model. This entails staff doing 100 per cent of the work in 80 per cent of the time for 100 per cent of the pay.
“From our previous office-closures experiment, we knew that as a team, we benefit most when we have shared days off,” said Alnis Dickson, Operations Manager at Laridae. “Knowing our team dynamic, we intentionally decided against staggering days off, and chose Fridays as the day off for everyone.”
Clients were informed of the new schedule and kept apprised of the trial’s rollout via the company blog.
Importantly, the company put guidance in place to allow staff to plan their time such that everyone was in sync for the four days we did work each week.
“If we had the same amount of work, but less time to do it, we needed to improve our overall efficiency,” he added. “We aimed to restructure our work styles to waste less time and focus on results.”
We also used the trial to address issues with capacity overall. In our preliminary discussions, we agreed that we needed to be more open with each other and with clients about our ability to work within tight timeframes and recognize our need to alleviate (not add to) stress.
Other companies going four-day
EcoSuperior: The environment-focused non-profit in Thunder Bay trialled a shorter workweek for four months in 2021 and found it benefitted staff with caregiving duties the most, plus staff were more productive and more creative.
Tulip: The Kitchener, Ont.-based software company allows new hires to pick a four or four-and-a-half-day workweek. Its doubling down on hybrid work, flexible schedules and even has a “work-cation” program: work while on your vacation, just at reduced hours.
Scoro: This U.K. software company has published a blog about how unproductive Fridays are. It moved to a four-day workweek after noting its work management software was tracking 23% lower usage on Fridays with email use down by 15% and Slack use lower by 24%.
Guidance put in place to enable the pilot
Coming out of our discussions, we created a Norms and Principles document that outlined guidelines and boundaries for this experiment. Importantly, it was agreed to in writing by our whole team to ensure full commitment to exploring whether we could be more productive in fewer days.
The Norms and Principles of our trial included:
Being intentional with why and how we moved forward. This included all of our choices related to the trial; from what day we would have off, whether we staggered days or chose one day for all, how we would structure our internal communications, and how we would manage the overall expectations of each other, and of our clients. A commitment to consensus.
Ongoing engagement with the team: to solicit feedback and ensure it was an iterative process. A commitment to adapting and changing as we went to ensure the experience was meaningful to all.
Being clear with each other about our expectations and behaviours, especially when busy. A commitment to continued respect for each other.
Acknowledgement that this was a different way to work and that we would each have different experiences with the change — whether in boundaries, expectations, and/or behaviours. A commitment to patience as we worked through deeply engrained workplace structures and habits.
Agreement. A commitment to doing our best in implementing a trial and learning about it.
- Boundaries: Fridays were non-workdays except for work that was truly urgent.
- Notifications and expectations: Everyone was encouraged to turn off notifications for Slack and email on Fridays and the weekends, with no expectations of furthering work assignments or returning client messages on those days.
- Protected desk time: Wednesdays were carved out as days with no internal meetings, so team members could make time for individual focused work or meetings with clients without continuous interruptions. This also provided a much-needed, midweek break from Zoom!
- Response time: We agreed on a 24 – 48 hours response time for clients throughout the rest of the week unless the matter was urgent.
- Being ok with saying “no” or “not now”: We agreed it was acceptable to tell clients if a staff member was at capacity and could not take on a project right away.
- Meetings: We reduced the number of internal meetings per week, shortened the duration of meetings as often as possible, and ensured we were using the time as efficiently as possible by ensuring meeting intent and agendas were clear.
- Ask for help: Staff who were at capacity were encouraged to reach out to others for help if they needed assistance in getting something done.
- Be realistic with time: When creating new project schedules, the team was encouraged to consider the implications of the shorter work week and ensure that realistic and reasonable timelines were provided.
Through this trial, we wanted to measure the success and challenges of the new approach to see if it could be fine-tuned and allow for an informed decision around making the change permanent. We also wanted to have metrics we could share with clients — many of whom were also struggling with stress and compromised productivity in the workplace.
To ensure objectivity in the assessment of the project, Laridae worked with Trent University.
Since running our trial, numerous other organizations in Canada and beyond have experimented with or moved permanently to a four-day workweek. However, at the time, this was not the case, and the university was excited to participate in our journey.
We engaged a sustainability studies master’s student to conduct a study with a survey component to assess staff experience throughout the pilot. Surveys would be conducted halfway through the pilot and at the end.
Outcomes measured included:
- A perceived increase in productivity
- No negative impacts on revenue
- No decline in client satisfaction
- Improved work-life balance
- Reduced stress levels
The good news
Surveys revealed that the shorter workweek had big benefits for Laridae’s staff across all measures.
Employees reported being more productive at work and in their personal lives. Fridays had become a day to deal with personal projects, side passions, and tasks such as appointments or errands that had been building up, and which may have interfered or conflicted with work schedules in the past.
As a result, employees reported they had better work-life balance.
They also said they were experiencing improved wellness, productivity, and team dynamics.
As for the company: Laridae surpassed its budgeted revenue targets in 2020, which supported employee feedback about increased productivity.
What gave us pause
While Laridae employees experienced numerous upsides to shorter work hours early on and over the longer timeframe, surveys found the initial benefits began to dwindle after about three months.
Our team consistently reported that they didn’t know if slips in productivity or well-being were due to the trial or the impacts of the pandemic.
But we still addressed comments that the workplace had slipped into old habits, particularly around our challenge areas of workload capacity, project scoping, and asking for help.
We facilitated discussions allowing the team to collaborate on changes to improve the situation.
What’s interesting is that the issues were underlying and systemic to the culture of the company, and only brought fully to light as we pursued our trial.
In this way, the four-day workweek helped restore vigour to our team with a sanctioned day off, but also forced us to make deep-rooted adjustments to the way we work as a company.
Figure: At the beginning of the trial, we surveyed everyone on the team, asking them to assess the company in the six different areas listed above. At the end of the six months, we sent out the same survey again, to see how our team’s perspectives may have changed. We saw improvements in all six areas, but especially in the areas of personal productivity and team dynamics.
In January 2021, Laridae officially made the four-day workweek company policy. With revenues high and employees happier, more productive, and experiencing better wellness, it was a win on all sides.
We took lessons from the experience around building employee resilience and company flexibility. Many adjustments were made throughout the pilot, so work got done efficiently and with as little stress as possible.
Laridae learned that the company culture and our own entrenched attitudes about work had to shift along with the new work schedule. Addressing deeper questions and challenges around defining what’s urgent, and allowing employees to communicate their experiences, was key to our growth in this area.
Reflecting on what helped make this new approach to work successful, three major elements stand out: finding ways for employees to continually offer feedback, keeping our shared values top of mind, and authentic support – especially from the leadership level – for all staff teams as they figured things out.
Working less in Iceland
In 2021, a report out of Iceland covered what happened in two large trials of about 2,500 people when companies reduced work hours to 35 or 36 from a 40-hour workweek. It showed well-being rose among workers related to perceived stress, burnout, health, and work-life balance. The change had no effect on revenue and now about 86% of people in Iceland are either taking a shorter workweek or have access to the choice.
Two years later
It’s been two years since we ran our trial and 18-months since we adopted the policy. Here are some of the longer-lasting benefits of this change:
We went into the trial with a 100-80-100 approach to see if we could enhance productivity in fewer hours. We have now essentially moved to a 32-hour work week but are seeing the same or higher levels of productivity as before.
We are still not expected to work on Fridays, nor do we expect correspondence from each other Friday through to Sunday.
Fridays are used differently by everyone — and that’s ok. Some disconnect, some get admin tasks off their desks, and some use the time for special projects.
We must continuously check in on creeping expectations and boundaries, especially when things get busy.
We rely on each other to be respectful of our time and even remind each other to disconnect. We have established joint accountability for our commitment to wellness.
A four-day workweek worked for Laridae. Can it work for your organization?
Download How to Implement a Four-Day Workweek Trial: A Guide for Non-Profit Leaders to help determine whether a trial is right for you, and how to get started if so.
We have prepared this guide based on our experience. It outlines some of the key elements that we believe made our trial a success. We wanted to share this with you so that you can get a head start if you are considering your own trial.
We also want you to know that we are here for you if you would like our professional support during the trial process in the areas of facilitation or stakeholder engagement.
Fill out this form to download the guide