We are Trialing a Four-Day Workweek

By Danielle Rocheleau

The challenges of the last few months have provoked a lot of reflection. The shift to working remotely has created a range of challenges for Laridae, just as it has for many of our clients: from having less of an ability to focus and sustain productivity, to impacting internal communications and “Zoom exhaustion,” to being able to separate our personal and professional lives. The lines, for many people, have been blurred, resulting in overworked and stressed teams.

But, I can’t help but wonder, is it COVID-19 that is doing this? Or has this been the reality all along?

Organizations set their internal functions, systems, and approaches based on internal and external norms and expectations. These form certain assumptions about why our policies and systems are in place and what the outcomes of these models are that we hope to achieve. Laridae is no different.

As we troubleshoot the current circumstances and the impact on our workplace culture, we’re reflecting on some of our internal assumptions. How could these assumptions be contributing to current challenges we are facing? Are these entirely new challenges, or have they been here the whole time?

In the past, we have tried implementing several policies to help our team get the personal time that they need to rest and recharge. Given the current stressors, we are realizing that perhaps these policies are no longer – or have never been – sufficient.

In order to better support our staff, we have decided to try something different by testing the initial assumptions that have informed our internal policies and philosophies. We are trialing a four-day workweek for the next six-months.

In this post, I am going to share the thought process that we went through that led us to implement this trial, as well as what I hope to learn from this new model.

Rethinking Our Work Environment

Over the past few months, the world has been experiencing something that has the potential to have long-lasting impacts on our workplaces. While adjusting to the challenges of working through a pandemic, many organizations have had to adjust to a new reality by:

  • Implementing remote working policies
  • Upgrading or learning new technologies
  • Establishing new communications norms and practices for their teams
  • Settling into working from home

Although the circumstances are challenging, an unexpected outcome has been a deep reflection on working norms, organizational structures and behaviours.

Unexpected Positive Outcomes

Some of the outcomes have been positive. Suddenly, teams who have multiple locations and who have struggled with remote working colleagues have a ‘level playing field’ and are reporting more collaboration and feeling closer to their co-workers. Colleagues are being viewed as people, now that they have had to ‘invite them into their homes’ and are seeing the pets and children, enhancing compassion and understanding. Managers are starting to see the benefits of working remotely and gaining stronger trust among their teams and with direct reports, whereas before they struggled to see how to ensure staff were working if out of the office.

Facing New Challenges

There have also been some negative aspects of our work environments that have come to light, such as:

  • Inefficiencies in our practices and organizational behaviours
  • Ongoing challenges with internal communications
  • Staff fatigue, stress and pressures that are unsustainable.

The newest – and potentially largest – challenge is: How can we balance work and home, when we are required to work from home? And, how can we take the positives of this experience, and ensure they continue beyond COVID-19?

How Should We Adjust?

As the last few months have progressed, Laridae has not only been engaging clients and supporting them through re-establishing new, remote working norms. We have also started to see and discuss the larger impacts this adjustment has had on our own team.

  • Should we increase the frequency of internal meetings to make up for the lack of opportunity for informal in-person discussions?
  • How can we continue to achieve a proper work-life balance?
  • What is the best way to mitigate the increase of exhaustion and frustration?
  • How frequently do we need ‘mental health days’?
  • Why do we feel so unproductive by the end of the week?

Searching for Work-Life Balance

Laridae has attracted hard-working, dedicated, responsive and passionate people. We really believe in what we do and we think it is important to be responsive to our clients’ needs. As a result, we have a lot of trouble saying “No,” even if we are already over capacity. We love our client work, and we have always been able to deliver quality service because of our dedication.

At the same time, we want to foster a work environment that helps our team maintain a good work-life balance. This has proven challenging. Over the years, we have implemented increasingly stringent policies in order to compel our team to take more breaks.

First, We Offered Flexible Hours

Every one of our staff has always been given significant flexibility to manage their own time and we have adopted a loose reporting structure to further facilitate this. Essentially, we have told our team: When you work long hours, schedule some time off. Or, if you want to head to your child’s field trip, book it off knowing you’ll make up for it later.

Then We Offered Unlimited Vacation

When this didn’t work, because our team tends to fill every waking hour with client work and internal projects, we broadened our vacation policy from 3 weeks annually to unlimited paid vacation. The expectation is that you take your minimum 3 weeks, however, we encourage you to take more.

Then We Closed the Office for Three Weeks a Year

When this didn’t work, because our team struggles in taking scheduled time off, and when we do, we have a deep-seated feeling of obligation to be responsive to our co-workers and clients, we opted to close three weeks of the year with pay – essentially forcing our team to stop and disconnect.

Has it Worked?

This all sounds great and like an idyllic place to work, which is our aim, however over the last few months we have been forced to test our assumptions once again.

What Are Our Assumptions?

As mentioned, every workplace functions with a set of assumptions. Here are some classics:

  • People need to be at the office to be productive, since staff won’t focus on work if they are at home
  • People need to meet in person to have effective meetings
  • Giving too much freedom will have negative implications on service delivery
  • Full-time work means working 40 hours/week, from 9 to 5 every weekday
  • Time off needs to be limited

We may scoff at some of these and nod at others. But please don’t misunderstand what I am getting at. I absolutely understand and value the need to set clear expectations, have common understandings, and establish policies informed by the Employment Standards Act. I am a management consultant after all, not to mention I am constantly sharing how important clear communications and policies are to setting healthy workplace cultures.

Nonetheless, it is sometimes worth reassessing and testing our assumptions to double-check their accuracy.

Laridae’s Assumptions

Some of Laridae’s assumptions, specific to productivity and work-life balance — which led us to implementing the above-mentioned policies — include the following:

  • We assume positive intent – we hire the right people for our team and believe they will do what is right with their focus and attention with work and home responsibilities.
  • We are all adults – each person on our team can and will manage their own priorities and schedule their time accordingly to ensure work-life balance.
  • We can match expectations with our available capacity – we are each responsible (to a degree) of how much work we can take on at any given time.
  • We are all honest with and respectful of each other – with our open internal communications approaches, we will naturally let each other know when we are at capacity, need help, and be mindful of each other’s commitments and time.
  • We need to be readily available for clients – when they need something, we respond and deliver right away or as soon as humanly possible.
  • We need to operate five (or seven) days a week – since many of our clients and most of the rest of the world operate during this time, so must we.

Testing our Assumptions

Even as I write the assumptions down now, I am struck by how some of them, although very well-intentioned, contradict each other. In one assumption we expect our staff to manage their own time to achieve work-life balance, then in another assume them to be available at all times based on the needs of the moment.

As mentioned earlier in this post, Laridae started to do some deep reflection on the impacts of COVID-19 on our team and those of our clients. Initially these reflections were based in the current circumstances. However, when we started to broaden our thinking, we started to realize that some of these patterns existed before COVID-19 and are actually rooted deeply in our team behaviour and culture.

The Impacts of our Assumptions

The realities of our workplace and the impacts of our assumptions and policies are as follows:

  • We rarely respond with “No” or “Not now”, and when we say “Yes” we don’t always consider how this will impact our pre-existing commitments  – when we are asked to do something, whether for a client or a colleague, we add it to our to do list and re-arrange everything to get it done. Whatever the cause – be it that we don’t want to let people down, that we don’t feel empowered to say “No” – the result is the same: goodbye evenings, goodbye weekends.
  • We prioritize work not only over work-life balance, but over self-care – when we finally reach the dates that Laridae closes (forced vacation), much of our team spends it laid up and tired. There have also been instances of pneumonia (ahem, this might have been me), resulting in a month out of not only work, but away from family.
  • We allow for tensions to rise – at key points of the year, such as weeks leading into our office closures, tension in our team rises. This is typically due to overwork and exhaustion. This results in inappropriate comments, passive aggressive remarks, and ultimately not treating each other with the respect I know we have for each other.
  • We never take the allotted time off – I am often having to remind people to schedule vacation. At this moment, for example, we are mid-way through the year and because of the circumstances, almost no one on our team has taken time off.
  • We end up needing to take ‘personal/mental health’ days – often a team member will let me know that they have or are signing off because they need to disconnect and regroup, or the team is having to intervene with a co-worker to redistribute work and they take the time they really need. 

Ultimately, this is not what we imagined nor how we want to live our values, support our team, and ensure productivity and great service delivery.

Our COVID-19 related reflections, have allowed us to stop and really test our broader assumptions about what we need to do and how we structure our work to meet our mandate and our strategic goals  of ensuring an excellent client experience, a valued workplace culture, and a strong and stable company.

We are not Owning our Role in Supporting our Staff with Work-Life Balance

At the core, my biggest and most basic observation is that we aren’t owning our role as the employer in supporting our staff with work-life balance:

  • We are leaving it to them to manage their schedules
  • We aren’t being intentional in matching expectations with capacity
  • We aren’t being respectful of the natural power dynamics that exist in all organizations
  • We aren’t making our workplace our own in the midst of societal norms.

So, what do we do?

The Four-Day Workweek

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that our current landscape has the potential of having long-lasting impacts on our workplaces. This will happen with or without us. But, by looking at our workplace structures and assumptions, and being intentional about ‘doing things differently’, we can ensure this happens in a positive way for our teams, workplace cultures, and overall societal norms.

The Potential Benefits of a Four-Day Workweek

With the rise of remote working, there has been a focus and an increased buzz about 4-day work weeks. The literature highlights not only what this can do for individual wellbeing, work-life balance, and productivity – but it may have huge implications on environmental impacts and gender balance.

Let’s focus on productivity. In an article written by The Economist in 2018, stated that recent research shows on average Canadian’s are productive 1.5 – 2.5 hours per workday as a result of inability to focus and balance work and life obligations. The Global Newswire shares that close to 60 percent of Canadians report they battle distraction at work — resulting in up to two hours of lost productivity every day. In a recent article published in The National Post it states that if productivity increases by 2%, each year, between 2018 and 2030, the average Canadian worker could make more money, while having a three-day weekend.

This is shocking information. But when we reflect on our own behaviours, we might admit that it could be true.

Now imagine, if we were able to give people enough time to dis-connect, re-charge, and focus on personal obligations, perhaps productivity would increase when at work. Currently, this is mostly a hypothesis. Although there are companies who work with these assumptions, the data is still emerging and limited. Perpetual Guardian, a company in New Zealand, who recently implemented this approach and studied their trial is one example of how they are contributing to the data.

Trialing the Four Day Workweek

Inspired by this information and existing literature, as well as our recent ‘ah hah’ moments about our own workplace assumptions, Laridae has decided to embark on a 6-month trial of a 4-day work week.

Goals and Framework

The goal of this trial will be to test productivity, motivation and output by changing the work model to give every staff member a paid day off each week. All other employment conditions, including remuneration and other benefits will remain unchanged. Essentially, our staff will be asked to deliver the same amount of output as in a standard week while being available for 4 days instead of 5 days.

Our hope is that the results go beyond productivity and has additional benefits, such as increased work-life balance, less need for sick/personal days, and that our overall workplace culture is enhanced, and individual wellness improved.

We are implementing this trial with the expectation that it might not provide all the answers, but that we will learn plenty and that it could be a big step towards making our work better for people.

Partnering with Trent University

In order to make the trial useful on a local and productivity level, Laridae is moving ahead with Trent University as an external, academic partner to help measure the outcomes of our employee engagement and progress.

Guidelines and Benchmarks

As we enter this trial, we are establishing some guidelines and principles for the next six months that clearly outline policies and approaches around team behaviours, meeting structures, individual roles and delegation of authority, communications, and successes. We are also benchmarking our perceptions on productivity, stress levels, work-life balance, which will help us understand the degree to which we have met our goal, improved our work model, and whether or not it is feasible long-term. We know this is going to be an iterative process – with plans being implemented, reflections made, and adjustments to our action along the way.

I suspect, in some respects, that no matter what the results, we will be a new company and team at the end of this.

Takeaway Exercise: How to test your assumptions?

In each of our roles, we have a certain level of autonomy to make decisions and implement change. We often refer to this as our ‘sphere of influence’. When starting to think about how your team and organization behave, start by the following steps:

  1. List your assumptions based on the reality ‘before COVID’
  2. Write down the assumptions that are realized, and those that your team or organization seem to fall short in living
  3. Layer on your reflections and learnings about your team or organization’s behaviours since COVID
  4. Consider your ‘sphere of influence’, what can you adjust or change in the team or organization’s behaviour and working model?

We encourage you to pause and reflect – and ultimately to test the assumptions that drive the way you work. Is it effective? Are we getting the best from the staff? Can we do even better?