On June 1, 2015, I told my employees that we were going to try something different that summer: a 5-hour workday. At the time, there were only seven people on my team. We all knew each other well, and I was aware that they were all highly productive hard workers. If I needed proof, we were ranked #239 on the Inc. 500 list of America’s Fastest-Growing Companies that year. I was looking for a way to reward my team while still incentivizing high-performance behavior. I felt like I had found it in the 5-hour workday.
At the summer’s end, I decided to make the change a permanent one. A year later, I announced the results of this experiment to the world and was met with a mixture of fascination and puzzlement. Some thought it admirable, others unwise, but almost all felt like it was a model that just “wouldn’t quite work” for their company. In business, a year is little more than a snap of the fingers. I needed more time to know if it would even work for my company.
The 5-hour workday is obviously a benefit to employees. Who doesn’t want to get off work at 1:00 in the afternoon? Still, I was running a business. I needed to know that this model was something that would allow my company to thrive and, hopefully, would allow others to as well. The verdict? Well, it’s complicated.
The good, the bad, and the pandemic
My business, Tower Paddle Boards, has been around for 10 years. Seventy percent of startups don’t make it that far, yet we managed to grow revenues by over 100% just last year. Neither of these facts is necessarily attributable to the 5-hour workday, but they do show that changing up working hours is far from a death knell for profitability.
The move also came with a few fringe benefits as well. The re-emphasis on productivity meant that we had no choice but to embrace the latest technology in full—anything less meant falling behind. The resultant productivity boost also allowed the company to up our base salary from $36,000 annually to $50,000, inspired in part by the similar moves made by Dan Price at Gravity Payments. Moreover, we’re a paddleboarding company. We want to embody the outdoors- and recreation-focused lifestyle we sell to people, and the 5-hour workday allowed us to do that.
Even in business, though, every rose has its thorns. Not long after I made the switch permanent, four of my nine employees left in quick succession. While all of them left for different reasons, most of them personal, this wrinkled productivity and called into question whether or not the slashed hours could really help with retention. Between a fluctuating team makeup, a couple of disappointing quarters, and struggles with Amazon’s e-commerce practices, I was forced to abandon the permanent 5-hour workday in April 2017, and just kept it as a summer practice.
The next few years saw a number of ups and downs for Tower. In the 16 or so months we had operated on a 25-hour-a-week schedule, the extra free time afforded us the opportunity to expand our operations into electric bikes, an event space, and a platform for direct-to-consumer brands looking to cut out the middleman. An eventual break with Amazon led to some serious revenue drops, but our diversified offerings now meant that our business was looking more resilient than ever. Then COVID-19 hit.
Our lines of credit were squeezed, our event space was rendered useless, and the entire future of Tower was made unstable seemingly overnight. Just as Fast Company named the 5-hour workday one of the North America finalists for its World Changing Ideas award, the pandemic called the whole endeavor into question. We silently dropped our prices, and I was forced to announce to my team that the 5-hour workday just couldn’t happen that summer.
The future of work
It would be easy for a cynic to close the book right there and declare the 5-hour workday dead on the table. A few months later, COVID actually caused our business to start to rebound, as people looked to our paddleboards and electric bikes as ways to be active while socially distancing. I wanted to bring the policy back, but I knew it had to be adjusted. The original goal was to maximize productivity alongside employee satisfaction, and it was important to me that any adjustment logistically reflect that ethos.
In October of last year, I announced a new tweak to the policy: the 5-hour workday would be instituted from August 1 to November 30 each year that Tower posts a higher revenue than the year prior. Both my team and I liked the simplicity of it. It incentivized employees to do their best work and wasn’t so radical a change to normal working practices as to be at risk of abandonment in the future.
Making the 5-hour workday work for Tower was far from easy. It originally debuted alongside a 5% profit sharing initiative that failed miserably, rewarding productivity far more haphazardly than our revised bonus policy does. The takeaway here is that it’s okay for a few aspects of your policies not to work as long as you don’t forget what inspired them: the well-being of your workforce. I’ve no doubt that the 25-hour workweek will require further fine-tuning on my part, but our story is, on the whole, one of success.
The journey toward maximizing employee satisfaction is never a smooth one, but the results are always worth the trouble. Making the 5-hour workday happen at Tower meant nodding as dozens of people told me it wasn’t possible. It wasn’t easy, true. But not only has it been possible, it’s been highly profitable as well.
Stephan Aarstol is the author of The Five-Hour Workday: Live Differently, Unlock Productivity, and Find Happiness. He is CEO and founder of Tower, a holistic beach-lifestyle company.