The realities of a four-day week (from an agency that has done it)
A view from Jonny Tooze

The realities of a four-day week (from an agency that has done it)

Lab's experience of moving to four working days a week has generally been positive, but it can also be a source of stress.

Traditionally, there are two things that have defined a "normal" working week: religion and Henry Ford.

If you’re Jewish, you don’t work on Saturdays. If you’re a Christian, Sunday is your day of worship. Ford once said 48 hours was too much and 40 hours was about right. He had time to give away, thanks to automation cutting a day’s worth of hours out of a week of labour. The result is that we find ourselves – in the West, anyway – as Monday-to-Friday nine-to-fivers. The marketing industry is no exception. Well at least that’s what it says in our employment contracts. 

My agency, Lab, recently decided to break with convention and cut a day from our working week, taking our staff down to four days. While results have been positive so far, it has not been without its challenges.

As Omar Oakes rightly says in his recent piece, there’s a difference between "getting thinking done" and "getting shit done". In the midst of our experimental four-day week, I think he has hit on a big misunderstanding people have about "productivity".

As a kid, I was told off for staring out of windows when I should have been writing something down. Apart from spotting the occasional squirrel, I was also thinking about what to write. But this wasn’t good enough. I was taught from an early age that sitting and daydreaming were not a good use of time. That only "visible" was valuable.

But sometimes, even more than thinking time, we need downtime. For example, watching crap on YouTube clears my mind and resets me. No doubt the "productivity experts" who wrote all the studies we’ve been quoting lately would categorise watching "WHEN BRAKE-CHECKS GO WRONG" as totally unproductive, but I need it every now and again – sometimes even during working hours. 

So how has compressing a week’s worth of work into four days helped to address this need to decompress? In short, it hasn’t. There is less time during the working day to think or relax, creating stress. 

It’s easy to point at prioritisation, or a lack of it, but longer days and lots of back-to-back meetings means that it’s hard to create space to detune and think, no matter what we slash from our organisational accountabilities.

The crux of all of this is that we’re talking about changing ingrained behaviours and habits. We’re used to having five days to deliver our work, along with the breathing space that affords. And we’re working with a world that habitually wants to keep things the way they are. 

I may sound negative about this experiment, but the truth is that, during a roll-out of something like this, there are always going to be ups and downs, and we’re very much in debugging mode. Overall, I’m still optimistic that it’s the right thing to do and that it will eventually lead to a greater work/life balance and better mental health for our people.

While there is a lot of romanticism about the four-day week concept, I want to be totally objective about our little experiment and tell it like it is.

Generally, our experiences have been positive. Productivity has remained constant and clients are happy. We get the bank holiday weekend feeling every week and we’re doing more of the things that we love – whether that’s spending time with our family, having weekends away or taking on personal projects. We’ve also found that the extra day off has given people time to do all the tedious life admin, unpaid labour and chores that often clutter our weekends – leaving Saturday and Sunday clear for fun stuff.

But while we feel more recharged, having less work time can sometimes mean added stress. We’ve had to get better at prioritising. And in the age of smartphones and social media, many of us (myself included) struggle to switch off from work during our long weekends. 

I still believe that a four-day working week is the way forward for our industry, but I would offer five key pieces of advice to any leader who wants to make the leap:

  1. Own your week, or it’ll own you

  2. Create a mantra such as "Does it make the boat go faster?" to help you prioritise

  3. Including too many people in meetings and decision-making needs to stop

  4. Treat it like a beta test – always getting feedback, always tweaking, always ready to pivot

  5. Create disciplines around protecting people’s time off – otherwise it will fail

Jonny Tooze is the founder and chief executive of Lab

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