Protocol | Workplace

Silicon Valley has a new recruitment strategy: The four-day workweek

Everything you need to know about how tech companies are beta testing the 32-hour week.

Woman in hammock

Since the onset of COVID-19, more companies have begun to explore shortened workweeks.

Photo: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

At software company Wildbit, most employees are logged off on Fridays. That's not going to change anytime soon.

To Natalie Nagele, the company's co-founder and CEO, a full five days of work doesn't necessarily mean the company will get more stuff done. She pointed to computer science professor Cal Newport's book, "Deep Work," which explains how a person's ability to complete meaningful work cuts off after just about four hours. That book, Nagele told Protocol, inspired the company to move to a four-day workweek back in 2017.

"We kind of jokingly and curiously said, 'Four hours a day times five days a week is 20 hours a week — what are we all doing for 40 hours a week?'" she said. "And that just spurred an experiment to say, 'Could we work less if we applied some of the philosophies from this book?'"

Since the onset of COVID-19, companies have begun exploring ways to make work more flexible, from implementing asynchronous work to extending remote work plans. But a handful of companies went a step further by introducing four-day workweeks, which they said boosts productivity and makes them more attractive than the next employer.

The policy has worked for Wildbit for years, but it's not a one-size-fits-all. Companies that have rolled out similar models have all taken different approaches, some of which never panned out.

Here's a rundown of what a four-day workweek looks like, who wants one, who doesn't and why companies are making the change in the first place.

What does a four-day workweek look like?

A shortened workweek looks different for each company, but the companies that have implemented the policy all have one goal in mind: get more work done in less time.

At Wildbit, Nagele said the customer success team needs to be available five days per week. To ensure the team still gets the same four-day weeks, she said some members of the division work on Fridays and take Mondays off, while the other handful of employees work on Mondays and take Fridays off. Employees across the company don't get a salary cut, she said.

Ecommerce company Shopify rolled out 32-hour weeks during July and August. During those months, Fridays are designated to "rest and refuel," Shopify communications lead Rebecca Feigelsohn told Protocol. She said the company hasn't decided whether it will continue the policy in the coming years.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, is still in the planning stages of a shortened workweek, which it plans to test by mid-2022. Kate Bernyk, the company's communications director, said Kickstarter will test out different schedules depending on the needs of each department.

Who wants a four-day workweek?

Essentially anyone who thinks their business can get the same — if not more — stuff done in less time is game for a shorter workweek.

Companies have run pilots of the work model over the years, but the realization that workers can do more in less time really took off in 2020. At least a dozen companies, including software application company Buffer and marketing platform AWIN, implemented shortened workweeks. In the U.K., more than 1 million companies have thought about logging off earlier in the week since the pandemic began, and thousands more have implemented some version of the policy.

"The majority of workers moving to work remotely overnight were steps we couldn't imagine before the pandemic. People have seen that you can carry on like that, and it's going to be quite stark for people to go back to the office," Joe Ryle, a campaign officer at 4 Day Week, told Protocol. "People are now realizing that's not the way you should be living our lives."

Ryle said there isn't one particular industry moving toward this model — businesses focused on everything from engineering to marketing have begun rethinking their workweeks. For companies that need to make themselves available all the time, like the hospitality and restaurant business, the implementation is a bit more difficult, but he's seen them roll out variations of a shorter workweek.

A handful of countries and government officials have considered the policy as well, including, Spain, Iceland, Ireland and Germany. In California, Rep. Mark Takano introduced a bill last week that would trim the standard workweek from 40 to 32 hours.

Who doesn't want a four-day workweek?

The thing is, almost no one is outwardly against a four-day workweek. But some companies haven't been able to make it work financially.

Wildbit and Kickstarter, and other U.S. companies that have introduced such a policy, are all relatively small; not fast-growing startups pressed by financial goals. Nagele, the CEO at Wildbit, said large companies aren't reaching out to her about the policy as much as smaller ones, which could be because large companies are moving too quickly to sit back and rethink their work day.

"Other companies are setting these goals for you, and in a lot of cases you have venture capitalists or whatever — the big folks that are really demanding this growth and acceleration," she said. "There's not a lot of time to pause and decide how we define work? How do we define enough?"

Gig workers could also become an outlier in a four-day workweek. In the legislation proposed by Takano, the California representative, gig workers wouldn't be included in the work protections, which could create a big pay inequity in the contractor business.

In other cases, shorter workweeks aren't always financially feasible. In 2017, workers in Sweden tested shorter workdays, which improved happiness among employees, but ended up costing too much money. An Amazon unit also tried it out, but the employees working fewer hours got a pay cut. Microsoft Japan ran a pilot in the summer of 2019 and saw a big boost in productivity, but it never continued the policy. Microsoft didn't return a request to comment.

What's the point in working fewer hours?

The bottom line is that a shorter workweek makes a company more competitive and makes workers happier, said Bernyk, Kickstarter's communications lead. And during a time when there's intense competition for tech talent, companies will bend over backwards to win their employees over.

"As we build a future that's more flexible, testing a four-day workweek is a continuation of that work," Bernyk told Protocol.

She added that the shortened workweek is one way to ensure employees are taking a proper break. A few years ago, Kickstarter gave its employees unlimited paid time off, but no one was actually taking a break. Cutting back weekly hours, and implementing a set number of paid time off, carves in a break for everyone at the company, she said.

For Wildbit, which had cut back weekly hours long before the pandemic, Nagele said a four-day workweek is one step closer to completely redefining work hours. It may be a pipe dream right now, but she said she eventually wants employees to figure out when to say "enough" and log out for the day or weekend, regardless of how much time they had spent working in one day.

"Can we say, 'We need to finish this one project and if we can get it done in two months, great. If it takes a month and a half, then fantastic,'" she said.

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