Time to walk the talk and adopt a 4-day work week

There is increasing noise around the merit of a 4-day week, and the list of businesses adopting shorter working weeks is slowly growing, albeit mostly in the technology/creative sector.

When you start looking into it, it doesn’t take long to show that in the UK our working habits aren’t up to scratch when compared with our European cousins who work less than us but produce more.

Things are not too dissimilar in the US either, with both our nations ‘enjoying’ a working week routinely over 40-hours with plenty of work-life encroaching at home and plenty of home-life impinging at work.

Our work-life balance is so in question that even one of the leading UK political parties is contemplating making a 4-day work week part of their manifesto for the next UK General Election, while Elizabeth Anderson of the “i” newspaper also provides a helpful reminder as to why “a 5-day working week is not efficient”.

A break from the old routine

It’s said that the current 9–5 regime is more suited to the manufacture of goods than to creative endeavour. Being insightful and inventive is not necessarily something that happens strictly between the hours of 9 and 5.

Also, the 9–5 regime is chock-full of low-quality time, especially in companies that have a meeting culture where ‘work’ is accumulated in endless back-to-back meetings, and everyone’s diary looks like they are losing at Tetris — there is a lack of space to do, let alone think, so something needs to change.

Dive in, feet first

So all things considered, in the autumn of 2018 we switched ELSE to a 4-day work week as we felt that it was time to walk the talk.

We’re a design consultancy with a keen interest in behaviour change, so we’re always looking to improve our culture and approach. Last year we were ready to evolve the way we worked to improve the quality of our thinking and subsequent output, and we realised that there is a brilliant opportunity to build a more productive, purposeful team while fostering a better work-life balance and developing a culture that attracts and retains the best talent.

At first, we fielded lots of questions from accountants and advisors as to “WHY?”. However, we had a good feeling that shortening our week to 4-days with a view to being more productive while increasing the quality of our downtime, would work for us.

6 months in and so far, so good. It’s not without its challenges, but we seem to have found a way to keep Friday dedicated to ourselves, to do what we don’t otherwise have time to do and yet still hit the same (if not improving) levels in our client work. We’ve also seen that in addition to being more productive in our client work, we’re also producing more R&D output than ever before.

Being ‘on’, focused and purposeful

It seems an age ago that people were to an extent defined by where they were at any given time, but as digital technologies have permeated our everyday lives, there has been a complete blurring of the boundaries between personal and professional selves. The downside is to force people into perennial mode-switching which in turn brings about the destruction of respect for their own time.

We’ve all checked emails when we know we shouldn’t, and we’ve all tinkered with a document at the weekend, knowing it to be plain unhealthy. However, this behaviour is detrimental in both directions. Work life can creep into your personal life, and your home life can creep into your work life resulting in low-quality attention in precisely the places you don’t want it.

With respect to working a 4-day week, the underlying thinking goes that by working less and having a greater separation between work and play, we ultimately improve happiness while becoming more focused, purposeful and productive — at ELSE we refer to this state of engagement with our work as being ‘on’ and it’s a great feeling.

In a book I read back in the late 90s pertaining to user experience design called ‘ Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, being on is described as “a state of flow — a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work”.

Working in a focused, purposeful way brings meaning and value to how you feel about what you do, and this can only be a good thing. So, given that happiness and creativity are natural bedfellows it did not take much to decide that adopting a 4-day week was something that we should do.

A balance of work, play and R&D days

The reason we have done this isn’t just about creating a better work-life balance and therefore more purpose and productivity; our 4-day work week has also been designed to encourage better learning and development through R&D.

We’ve adopted a ‘9 in 10’ model, meaning we work regular hours Monday–Thursday, then every other Friday we take a home R&D day — which is also an intrinsic part of our Academy of Experience Design talent proposition (we want working at ELSE to be a highlight of your CV).

On our R&D day, we all get the time and space to develop ourselves and our thinking by working on intrinsically motivated projects. Everyone can explore carefully chosen topics of personal interest and get to understand emergent themes and technologies better, through research projects, sprints or speculative design exercises.

Ultimately, firms such as ours get hired for our expertise, our creativity and the perspective that we bring. Therefore, it stands to reason that the culture of any design consultancy should create meaningful breathing space for learning, exploration, research and development. The problem is, that when you are busy, most of that learning occurs through the work that you do, and if you’re not careful, your collective knowledge becomes defined by the work you’re asked to do. Arguably it should be the other way around.

Most design firms worth their salt knows that the development of their culture, people and intellectual property is hard-wired to the type of work and clients that they attract, and this is particularly important in the field of experience design where people, businesses and new technology come together. At ELSE, our clients expect us to to be on the front foot in this regard, to understand what is next and how to exploit it.

The result? Of course, everyone enjoys the emotional and practical benefits of a 3-day weekend, but counter-intuitively we’re getting through more R&D, and we haven’t dropped the ball in our client work. However more than this, with the increase in R&D effort, it ensures that we’re fighting fit for our clients from a knowledge standpoint and able to dedicate focus Monday–Thursday.

The pay-off

The value of extra time at home is evident because we all have more time to focus on tasks that would otherwise escape us during the week, such as dropping the kids to school or having lunch with your partner, but crucially 3-days also offers more clear space to spend time on hobbies that get regularly sidelined. A non-negotiable day dedicated to whatever you want to do with it.

With that extra day, we can find time to be present and be ourselves and continue with all the usual activities that swallow a weekend, like getting the car washed, cutting the grass or playing taxi. We can do all of this and still come back in on Monday ready, primed and ‘on’.

The weekly goal is clear — it’s about creating a better balance that comes from improved quality time at home that in-turn supports improved quality work time. However, this only works if we as human beings, parents, colleagues, friends and siblings can be manifestly present and ‘on’.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing but we are getting there, we’ll share what we’ve learned so far in a follow-up post.

In summary, by having less time at work, it seems that we get to do more, we get to be ‘on’ more and be ‘present’ more and enjoy that state of flow.

If you are interested in hearing how our 4-day work week is going? Drop us a line.