Nora Jenkins Townson is the founder of Bright + Early, a modern HR and workplace design consultancy.
When it comes to the four-day workweek, some may see mostly benefits and others mostly challenges. After we began to roll it out in January, I have learned some lessons about how to make it work.
According to a 2022 Qualtrics Study, 92 per cent of workers would like a reduced schedule, and 63 per cent of companies that tried it are reporting better success recruiting and retaining staff. Our own team has been spending more time with family, in nature and caring for loved ones.
With less commuting, not only can the model help employees save money on transportation and lunches, but it can also be good for the environment.
However, many leaders are hesitant to jump right in, and rightly so. Will less work get done? Will more workers need to be hired? Will everyone just cram 40 hours of tasks into fewer days? If you’re ready to experiment with a four-day workweek, it may be best to ease yourself into it. Here’s how:
Instead of jumping right in and declaring every Friday a free day off, try taking baby steps. Sophomore, a Toronto-based marketing and production agency, took a phased approach by introducing a “no meetings on Friday” policy. Then, they moved to taking every other Friday off, with a goal of reaching a four-day workweek a few months down the line. By taking it slow, they were able to find (and solve) any challenges that came up, at a reasonable pace.
Know that your business is unique
Though a four-day week won’t be possible for many business models, it may be more doable than you think. As a service-based business, Bright + Early had the challenge of adapting our clients to the new schedule, most of which worked traditional hours. What if they had an emergency during an “off” day? To solve this, we shifted all client-facing work to other days, but also explored ideas like having rotating team members “on call” and checking emails just in case. However, we didn’t find ourselves using this system too often. You may find that clients and partners are more supportive than you imagine.
Step up and lead
Moving to a reduced workweek will challenge leaders to be clear about the priorities and deliverables they expect from their team. It’s also up to them to model the behaviour they want to see. If employees see their boss sending Slack messages or emails on “off” days, it may break their trust in the program and leave them wondering whether they too should be logging on.
Find (and eliminate) inefficiencies
Chances are, your team isn’t working 40 entire hours at full efficiency. Piloting a reduction in work hours can be a great excuse to find efficiencies and automations. Take a look at your team’s regularly scheduled meetings, for example. Can any of them be shortened, done asynchronously or even eliminated? Can time-intensive administrative tasks be eased with new software or processes? We moved our weekly Friday meeting to biweekly, but added a casual (and optional) kickoff chat on Monday mornings to ensure we still felt connected. Another great meeting hack is to provide all the relevant information prior to the call, giving people time to digest and form opinions. Then use the meeting time for discussion only.
One mistake organizations make when experimenting with a four-day workweek is not being clear with staff that it’s just that: an experiment. If you’re committed to making it work, great. But, if you’re just testing the waters, be honest. As you learn what works and what doesn’t, timelines and circumstances might change. Juno College, a technology college based in Toronto, ran a three-month pilot program that it decided to extend. “We decided to do one Friday off in the first month, two in the second month, and three in the third month. We ended up holding at three Fridays off for two additional months, as we found some teams needed a bit longer to adjust,” said Juno’s chief executive officer Heather Payne. The school made the official switch to a four-day workweek after six months.
Check in regularly with staff on how they’re adjusting. Are they finding they have enough time to get their work done? Are they regularly sneaking in work on days off? This is more common than you may think, and employees might be hesitant to speak up for fear that the perk will be eliminated. If people are struggling, don’t assume failure; try to help them find efficiencies first.
As with all major changes, ensuring people feel heard and supported during the transition is key. And, if you make them part of the process, it’s likely your team will pitch in to help it succeed.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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