The elusive four-day work week seems to be finally gaining momentum. Next month, 3,000 workers across Britain will trial a condensed working week. The six-month trial, organised by a UK think tank and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College, has picked employees working across industries to explore whether a four-day week is viable.
The design industry has displayed a typical sense of forward thinking when it comes to flexible working. When design studio Normally was set up in 2014, its founders were determined to avoid common pitfalls of the creative industry and so opted for a four-day week. They had found past ways of working both inefficient and unsustainable, explains Normally co-founder Marei Wollersberger.
Designers would work for two years to a point of exhaustion, take a break and embark on the “next two exhausting years”, she outlines. Presenteeism was also a big problem – “there was lots of hanging out around the ping pong table,” Wollersberger adds. Normally’s team can choose which day to take off but most people choose Friday. Working four days has given designers more control of their free time, she believes. People use the time for all sorts – those from abroad can visit their family over the weekend, for instance.
“Surely we can find a smarter way of approaching work”
Wollersberger is also a mother, and the studio has lots of parents. The four-day week caters to different people’s needs, helpful not only for current workers but also for fostering a wider talent pool. As Wollersberger puts it: “If you have a culture that is based on presenteeism, then you’re unknowingly – probably unintentionally – excluding a lot of people who have other things going on in their lives.”
The atypical structure also suits the studio’s outlook. With an emphasis on R&D work, Normally’s design team often has to embrace complexity to make sense of challenges. “You can’t paint by numbers,” as Wollersberger says. Sometimes, they need time to step back from the computer screen and take a break.
The designers have discovered that this way inspiration generally arrives more naturally. “We found that sometimes when we worked on particularly challenging projects that epiphanies came on the Friday which was typically our day off,” Wollersberger adds. She also believes the creative industries are well-positioned to take on different ways of working, framing the five-day working week as a hangover from industrial times. “We’re creative people, surely we can find a smarter way of approaching work.”
“You’ve got less time, so you have to be more on it”
Design studio Else began to tinker with its working week in 2018. Once the wider team was told about the changes, a process of iteration began, explains studio co-founder and chief experience officer Warren Hutchinson. Questions had to be answered. Would everyone take the same day off? What does a rejigged workload look like? How does that work with clients? It took around nine months to get it right. Now the studio operates what it calls a “nine in ten model”.
Fridays alternate between “play days” and days off. On the former, designers explore R&D – pitching projects and collaborating. On the latter, they can do whatever they like. There’s been no change in compensation. The driving motivation was to create a space away from client work. “If all the work you do is what clients bring in, you become defined by that,” he says. “We want to be ahead of what our clients need.”
In Hutchinson’s eyes, the shorter work weeks make for a vast improvement. It cuts the flab from a five-day week, fostering a “very intentional and purposeful” working environment, he says. “You’ve got less time, so you have to be more on it,” the designer adds. It also means that there’s a greater delineation between the weekend and work. “Nothing’s hanging around Friday, Saturday, Sunday – you’ve done good work in the week and that engenders a great deal of satisfaction,” Hutchinson says. Work anxiety is a significant problem. In 2019, two out of three UK workers felt their weekends were cut short because they were worried about work. And as more people work from home, the boundaries between leisure and work can be harder to define.
But a shorter, more intense week won’t work for all designers. Hutchinson says that in the first 18 months of rejigging the schedule, a couple of employees left. “I thought, ‘this is the holy grail of work’,” he says. “But some people find it too intense.” He also admits that in the early days, the support system might not have been in place to help people adapt. Hutchinson adds that the rest of the team has taken to the change quite easily – once they moved part any feeling of guilt about not working on Fridays.
“Work shouldn’t completely define who we are”
One studio considering changes to the work week is Output. Among the potential benefits of a four-day week, studio managing director and partner Gemma Ballinger lists a healthier perspective when it comes to work. “We want people to love their work and bring their all to it when they come to work, but it shouldn’t completely define who they are,” she says. Ballinger herself started working four days a week after the birth of her daughter. She says it’s given her the freedom to sort out life admin, spend time with family and keep the weekend free.
Shifting to remote work during the pandemic also means that it’s easier to imagine a change in way of work. “Those outdated models of 9-6, everyone sitting in the office together for five days a week, is just so far away from what we know works for us now,” she adds. It helps that the studio is a “small and nimble” team of 12, Ballinger points out. A bigger consultancy would have much more administrative detail to iron out.
Ballinger stresses that the possibility of a four-day week is far off for Output, and any change would require plenty of discussion with the wider team. But the studio has tinkered with workflow already. The team starts later on Mondays and there’s a “discretionary 2 o’clock finish” on Fridays. It was prompted by a Christmas period where long hours and lockdown drudgery had left the team feeling burnt out, Ballinger explains.
Though the studio’s sprint work sometimes takes place on the Friday afternoon, that’s not always the case. If a designer has finished their work for the week, there’s no need to stay until 6 o’clock, she explains. The take-up has varied as it’s not a hard and fast rule as of yet, but she says the effect of even small changes has been noticeable.
“We’ve been massively surprised about how little anyone cared about it”
The main challenge for Ballinger would be communicating any changes to clients. They may worry about the potential for less contact time and a decreased work output. It would help to be as precise as possible about the changes – fixing a day off, for example – and to have evidence of similar schemes working. At Normally, the designers were clear about communicating the structure externally from the start. “To be honest, we’ve been massively surprised about how little anyone cared about it,” Wollersberger says.
Else took a different tack altogether – not telling clients about the schedule adjustment for half a year. If they could pull that off without clients noticing, then there was no problem, Hutchinson explains. For the studio, the strategy paid off. “I think everyone understands that what we do isn’t constrained by time at a desk, so it feels natural to find a better way to work,” Hutchinson adds. “And I think our industry can show other industries how to do it.”
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