Many businesses that moved to remote work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were surprised to find in the first month that the shift was less painful than expected. Companies have long treated work outside the office—whether remote, with flexible hours, or occasional work from home—with suspicion. Nothing could replace the creative ideas sparked by random encounters, or better demonstrate an employee’s loyalty and passion, than showing up and staying late.
Now, several months into quarantine, some companies are discovering that going remote has also made another change possible. They’re moving to 4-day weeks, without losing productivity or hurting their sales.
In the U.S., these companies include social media app Buffer and social impact accelerator Uncharted, as well as local governments in Colorado and West Virginia. Donegal, Ireland-based online publishing platform developer 3D Issue; English magazine publisher and events organizer Target Publishing; and Bogota-based virtual voice agency Bunny Studio, have all recently started trialing 4-day weeks. They join hundreds of companies around the world that in recent years have permanently shortened their working hours without cutting salaries or productivity.
Together, they show how any company that can go remote can make a 4-day week work. And they illustrate why companies should look seriously at adopting a 4-day week.
Of course, no one went into lockdown expecting to move to a 4-day week. They were more concerned with helping employees set up offices at home, and surviving the next few months. Those who didn’t already have an online infrastructure that let them work and interact with customers remotely quickly discovered the importance of cloud-based tools such as Google Suite, Slack, and Amazon Web Services, as well as more specialized platforms such as project tracking system Jira, marketing and sales platform Hubspot, and accounting system Xero.
3D Issue already had those tools. “When the pandemic hit it was seamless for us to work remotely,” CEO Paul McNulty tells me. “It was a matter of lifting your hardware and getting the staff longer Ethernet cables. We didn’t have to purchase any new platforms or anything.” At Uncharted, they clarified their objectives and key results and improved their collaboration tools. For Bunny Studio, having tools that supported “a culture of over-communication and internal documentation” had always been important, and became even more critical.
But despite preparing for the worst—executives at Bunny Studio took pay cuts to extend the company’s cash reserves, and Target Publishing cut everyone’s hours and pay—after a couple of months it was clear that productivity was not dropping. Working from home let everyone at Uncharted set aside several hours a week for deep work, and Banks started scheduling time for his core work, rather than letting meetings determine his day. Maika Hoekman, head of people operations at Bunny Studio, saw that workers were “improving in their focus and attention management, kind of letting go of their FOMO.” At Target Publishing, “things that would take up quite a lot of time before are taking up considerably less time,” David Cann tells me. “A meeting that would normally take an hour will take 15 minutes.”
This was all happening even while “errands are taking longer, families are stressed out, and kids are at home,” Hoekman says. “We couldn’t expect our team members to bring their whole selves to work while ignoring what was going around them. Team members definitely need a mental break.” For Bunny Studio, a 4-day week became a way to reward workers for their good effort under difficult conditions, and to provide a meaningful incentive to continue working hard. “We cannot offer awesome office spaces with the ping-pong table or free lunches” to Bunny Studio staff, who live in Colombia, the U.S., Nigeria, Turkey, and the Philippines, Maika Hoekman tells me. “Besides—no offense—but those are kind of empty perks.”
Three months into lockdown, when Target Publishing was in a position to restore salaries, David Cann had to decide what to do about the 4-day week. “To take that away from employees will be a bit disheartening,” he thought. Besides, “I could see that the company was being quite efficient in those 12 weeks of lockdown. We got several magazines out on time, which made me think that actually, the 4-day week could work and that we could give something back to the employees.”
At 3D Issue, Paul McNulty saw that “because of the pandemic, people are really assessing their priorities. If they’re asking, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ and you offer them a day off or another 30 euro a week, they’re going to choose the day off.” The experience has also changed how McNulty thinks. “I had been focused so long on salaries and staying competitive, and the 4-day week has made us realize that that’s not the core driver,” he says. “Employers need to think about what we can do to improve the quality of life of our employees.”
David Cann says, “We know the systems work remotely, and we know that the team is pretty good at getting the job done. So if there’s a second wave, we’re pretty much ready for it.” There’s good evidence that the 4-day week helps make organizations more flexible and resilient.
Companies that had already shortened their working hours before the pandemic found that “the 4-day workweek made the transition to working from home full-time due to the pandemic a lot smoother,” as Robert Yuen, founder of San Francisco-based startup Monograph.io, observed.
When Copenhagen-based software and design agency Abtion shifted to remote work in March, a few months after moving to a 4-day week, chief people officer Bo Konskov was confident that employees could tackle the challenges the pandemic would present. At other companies, “one must constantly document that one is at work, but not with us,” journalist Pernille Grade Abildgaard says. “It would be a waste of time because we know that all our employees are on and working.”
Some leaders will wonder: If the pessimists are right and we’re headed into a recession when people will be begging for work why should they offer workers a 4-day week?
First, companies that need to reopen their physical locations will still need to practice social distancing in the office and supporting a 4-day week and flexible work will help offices prevent becoming virus hotspots. Second, smaller companies located outside major cities will soon be competing for talent with giants that have discovered an appetite for remote work. “A lot of people were already looking to get out of cities, move to an area that’s less expensive, and now companies like Twitter are saying if you want to work forever you can,” Paul McNulty notes. “How do smaller companies in Donegal compete with Dublin wages? For us, the 4-day week will be a differentiator.”
Monograph.io, Abtion, Buffer, 3D Issue, and other companies that moved to 4-day weeks before or during the pandemic show that once you’ve created an infrastructure that supports remote work and collaboration, shifted from a time-oriented to outcome-oriented mindset, and established a rhythm that allows people time to focus and do deep work, you have everything you need to support both remote work and a 4-day week. You need to extend flexibility to your workers and ask them to be flexible, too. The 4-day week creates space for a more creative business, a more resilient organization, and a better future.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is the author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How and founder of the consulting company Strategy and Rest.