During the early days of Xaso I never questioned the working schedule of the company; it just seemed obvious to have a five-day working week, the major reason being “it’s normal” – it’s what everyone else does, therefore it must be what’s best. When we sat down to really define our identity as a business we spent a lot of time focusing on our services, how we would create the technology behind it, what brings genuine value and not just what’s theoretically possible to do (and everything else that entailed).
We were aware that the best work that could be done within the PPC world (this orchestra of sciences working in unison) is currently being complete to the full extent in very few places (even we’re not fully there yet), but it is absolutely the best way forward, it is the future. By going down this “What is objectively, measurably, the best option?” road at the beginning, we ended up questioning everything, specifically how Xaso functions inside, beyond our service delivery; were there any opportunities here to be better by our measurement (for both the well-being of the team and the clients) and how do we test whatever that is, if it does exist.
Being smaller enables us to be very agile, and we knew we needed to capitalise on this while we could. It’s very important that we ensure whatever it is we grow into is intentional and that we will be better for it, we see this time as the best opportunity we’ll have to achieve that.
After researching it was very apparent that the four-day working week was at the top of things to test within the team, there are simply no working alternatives that provide even close to the same benefits. We decided to set up a three-month trial of working four days a week and track and compare everything we could against the three months beforehand. Before I get into more specific details on how that went for us, I want to talk more about why it was (potentially) so attractive.
All working hours become more effective; while figures vary between cases, in 2019 Microsoft Japan saw productivity increase by ~40% during their month-long trial. There are some good explanations for this; Stanford University, detailing the two likely reasons; employees that are overworked become much less efficient, and the working days or hours taken away from them were periods when less work was done (e.g., the last working day of the week or the later hours of the days). Another notable study tracked the negative impact working longer hours had on cognitive function has.
In 2018, the International Labour Organisation released a research paper on the future of work, detailing “working excessively long hours on a regular basis has been shown to reduce hourly productivity due to greater fatigue, and those workers with long hours and/or heavy workloads report decreasing job satisfaction and motivation”. Even going as far back as 1975, studies concluded that reduced working hours for employees hugely increased their effectiveness.
This really stood out as the most beneficial aspect for the business; simply, how much more effective we could all be for our clients.
Mental & Physical Well-Being
This one is kind of an obvious one (and I think the most important for us as individuals); being exhausted is exhausting, the conditions in which your mental (and physical) well-being deteriorate are also found when you are over-worked and unmotivated. By both reducing the least effective hours at work and increasing the free time people have, it’s much easier for them to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Mental health isn’t simply a matter of tangible outcomes (e.g., if something good happens you’re then made to be perpetually happy), it’s a large, involved process with perception and behaviour at its core. Sometimes just a small amount of time to adjust your perception, to take a break, is enough to have better emotional responses to what’s in front of you – the extra time off can give you that.
In high-stress jobs, prolonged exposure alone can grind people down slowly (even if you’re not being overworked specifically). Without adequate time to maintain the habits which maintain the whole, it’s just a matter of time before you start to suffer at work.
Unsurprisingly there are many studies linking long working hours and weeks with poor physical health and more which detail how it impacts your happiness.
Time is extremely valuable, even in cases where people received less pay for working shorter weeks it resulted in greater personal happiness.
Impact on the Environment
With fewer hours in the office consuming electricity, and fewer commutes to work, less carbon dioxide is produced. For every 1% reduction in working hours, there is a 0.8% drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
Our Initial Trial
So off the back of consuming all this information, I decided to implement our own test spanning three months of four-day weeks; I wanted to be very sure (P < 0.0000000001 type of thing) that it is as good as it’s made out to be, and that if we go ahead and implement this permanently afterwards, we could do it knowing we’d never need to revert it.
To measure the test we completed weekly questionnaires for three months before the trial and over the three months during, and I also asked some willing clients to give feedback alongside this. We tracked the effectiveness of the hours worked (time taken to perform x amount of work, by week type) alongside the total effective hours worked to better understand how it was impacting our productivity.
We split the team into two, Team A worked Monday to Thursday and Team 3 (I have a soft spot for uncomfortable naming conventions) worked Tuesday to Friday. For clarity, we categorised bank holidays as the extra day off in the week, so at times the teams worked the same days, and we made no adjustments to salaries.
So we began.
The Results, Our Thoughts, & Following Changes
The results were actually everything we thought they may be, and more in other ways.
Both teams saw a close to 30% increase in productivity; any time spent working was more focused and much more effective, and while we weren’t able to (obviously) complete more hours of work, we 100% saw a visible improvement in the quality of the work we were doing (in regard to both output and accuracy).
We also saw shorter meetings like others and we also all personally saved money in travel and lunches. I think the extra time really helped us maintain the habits I mentioned earlier.
We actually spent a significant amount of time voluntarily learning on our days off; I came into the office some weeks to just relax and do some studying, though I mostly cycled and worked on other projects. Others went to the gym, spent more time with their partners and also studied.
(Admittedly, I personally work almost 7 days a week — it’s just the nature of running a small business — but, I did get net more time off on the weeks during the trial, specifically on the correct designated days).
Both teams saw an increase in perceived personal well-being; we created a “satisfaction score” (S) based on a few factors (physical and mental health and some subfactors both inside and outside of work, and a few other things) detailed in our questionnaire, the score summarised our perceived overall well-being during both periods.
The feedback we received from clients was similar but not as significant, which I guess in retrospect is to be expected as almost all the benefits were personal.
After reviewing the trial in full we decided to permanently implement the four-day working week; what we’ve seen internally, for us, the effect the schedule has as a whole more than outweighs the monetary value lost in potential profitability in the short term.
It has elevated the lives of the team (both inside and outside of work) resulting in better work for our clients and an even stronger and happier team. We all mutually believe that quality is vastly more important than quantity, this has only enabled us to deliver better quality work and be much more satisfied while we’re doing it. So this has been a massive success in my opinion.
The “more in other ways” comment in the first sentence of this section was in relation to employment dynamics, and how the trial in a small way surprised me; I think the trial exposed the whole team to a much more symbiotic working arrangement; as a shareholder, at face value, it’s easy to view a four-day working week as objectively “less”, but in reality in transpired to be much, much more. The most significant thing has been that everyone has had a much greater sense of ownership and shown much more initiative in their roles. The whole team really try to give back as much as they can to the business itself.
Advice to Other Businesses
For many reasons, I’m very aware not all companies can implement this kind of change, but I do believe a middle ground could be found in every workplace; offering regular well-being days off work at some frequency alone has a massive impact on staff, the benefits of which to you as an employer would be far greater than you would initially predict.