In March and April of 2020, work and life as we knew it was changing. I surveyed our team members (all 84 of whom are spread out across the globe) to understand the best way to help them cope with so many things shifting at once.
I especially wanted to hear from parents about what could help them as many schools were shutting down and partners or spouses were also required to work from home.
The results? Most people wanted more time to get through the new challenges they faced.
As a remote organization, we already offer a lot of flexibility to our employees, and it’s one of the many benefits of remote work. The ideal solution for us at the time was to both lean into flexibility and offer more time at once, which is when we started considering a four-day work week.
The concept of a 4-day work week gained a lot of traction in early 2020 as many companies saw better flexibility and thus happier employees when moving from five eight-hour days to four. Microsoft trialed this in Japan and saw a 40% increase in productivity, and Unilever New Zealand also rolled out 32-hour work weeks.
Given the stress, shutdowns, and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was also touted as a helpful way to address childcare, quarantines, and other things.
The combined survey of our teammates and increasing global proof that the four-day work week could be a good solution is what spawned our one-month trial. After that trial, we saw that not only had happiness and stress improved, but productivity hadn’t dipped. We opted for a 6-month trial to validate if this was a sustainable practice, and it was.
Now, we’re continuing four-day work weeks for the foreseeable future. Here’s a look at some of what we’ve learned from surveying our team about the four-day work week over the course of our two trials.
What our internal surveys have told us about a four-day work week
The four-day work week resulted in sustained productivity levels and a better sense of work-life balance. These were the exact results we’d hoped to see, and they helped us challenge the notion that we need to work the typical ‘nine-to-five,’ five days a week. It’s worth noting that though we’ve seen sustained productivity levels, we’ve been gauging that based on teammate feedback and not company-wide goals, that is changing in 2021.
As we looked back on the impact of working a company-wide four-day work week in most of 2020, we decided to push forward with this model into 2021, with a few clarifications and exceptions. Here’s how we evaluated our six-month pilot program and why we decided to continue operating on a four-day work week.
Starting in May of 2020, I measured the following:
- output based on area deadlines and goals
- teammate’s individual autonomy
- stress levels
- general work happiness
Here’s a bit more about how each of those measurements has gone.
Our output during a four-day work week
In our May trial, we saw that teammates felt overwhelmingly as productive or more productive on a four-day work week as they did on a five-day work week. That was only the one-month trial, so it could be easy to ignore, but we saw the pattern emerge in our six-month trial. Nearly 34 percent felt more productive than when we had a five-day work week, nearly 60 percent felt equally as productive, and less than seven percent felt less productive.
While teammates reported feeling more productive, I also spoke with managers. I rounded up the data from our managers around team output to help establish if the data matched the teammate’s feelings and what my recommendation would be for going into 2021.
For our Engineering teams, the number of total coding days went down. However, we saw significant increases in output. Our Engineering Manager, Ivana, shared: "Weekly coding days went from 3.4 to 2.7 for product teams, and from 3.2 to 2.9 for Mobile and Infrastructure, while the productive impact increased significantly for product teams and doubled for Infrastructure and Mobile!"
Many of the managers I spoke with echoed Ivana’s feelings of seeing an increase in output.
The exception to these results in productivity was our customer advocacy team. We had a harder time maintaining productivity levels, which was to be expected because this role is unique in its unpredictability of volume.
Anecdotally, our advocates still cited feeling they were about 85 to 90 percent as productive as they had been during five-day weeks outside of the customer inbox, i.e., on other projects. However, customers did wait a bit longer to receive an initial reply to their emails.
As was mentioned earlier, we were asking teammates and managers to gauge overall productivity and not measuring it for ourselves based on company-wide goals. That is changing in 2021 as we’ve set down more specific company goals, so we will be able to see how well we achieve our goals each quarter, and it will be another key measure of the success of the four-day work week.
Reported autonomy and flexibility in May of 2020 was at 4.3 out of 5, with 5 being “total autonomy.” This increased to 4.7 by the end of our six-month pilot:
Reiterating that our teammates have control over their schedule has been a key goal of the four-day workweek.
Our stress levels in May 2020 (when we first launched the experiment) was 3.3 out of 5, with 5 being high stress. Reported stress dipped down to 2.7 at our June survey, and then only slightly up to 2.9 at our October survey.
General work happiness
Our overall happiness trend for the entire company stayed consistent, and given the volatility of the events of 2020, I felt this was a good trend.
Our exact quarterly numbers were:
- Jan: 4.1/5
- April: 3.8/5
- July: 3.8/5
- Sept: 3.7/5
How we’re continuing the 4-day work week into 2021
Given that the data was primarily positive for a four-day work week, we’ve decided to continue this practice into 2021. Throughout the year, I’ll continue to keep an eye on productivity and team engagement through our quarterly surveys to ensure that the four-day work week is ultimately helping Buffer’s business needs.
Our guidelines for our four-day work week in 2021:
We adjusted a few things based on our experience in 2020. Here’s what I sent to our team about our guidelines for the four-day work week:
We’ll continue with:
- No meetings or expectation of communicating on Slack on Fridays.
- Fridays as a default day off for most areas.
- Customer Advocates’ workweeks will look different due to the nature of the role. More communication will follow on schedules and expectations.
- Further defining weekly output expectations at the area and department level.
- Clarifying performance standings. Teammates who are not meeting their objectives may choose or be asked to work 5 days.
- Evaluating this schedule at least quarterly on the basis of overall team productivity, hitting OKRs, teammate stress levels and feeling ownership of your work schedule.
We will continue to reiterate that while this is a special benefit, we as a company must meet our collective deadlines. Some work weeks might need that Friday as an overflow work day to finish up what we’ve committed to do. Everyone is still expected to get their work done.
While as a company we originally adjusted deadlines to factor in the four-day work week and the unique situation of the pandemic, we’ve since moved forward with establishing ambitious goals for the coming year and recognize that this will likely push the limits of the way we’ve been operating in a four-day work week and force us to keep adapting to this new way of work. Personally, I know every teammate at Buffer is capable and up to the challenge.
Because our Customer Advocates don’t have as much project-based work as other roles, we have specific targets to meet:
Customer Advocacy 4DWW Strategy 2021
Goal: Successfully work four-day workweeks as a team whilst delivering an above the bar customer service experience customers rave about.
Measurement: Team members are expected to achieve their ticket targets each week (number of tickets replied to based on level + personal commitment/goal agreed upon with lead) as well as average 2.8 ACE score on tickets and/or team members working outside of the inbox will be expected to complete projects, hit deadlines, and achieve key results.
We’ll continue to craft and iterate on ways to both serve our customers well and provide flexible work weeks to our teammates.
I will continue with periodic surveys around team productivity, personal stress levels, autonomy, and happiness. Buffer is also diving back into using OKRs as a tool to track our productivity and progression, which will give us another measuring stick to use in the overall evaluation of our four-day work weeks.
We aren’t sure that we’ll continue with the four-day work weeks forever, but for now, we’re going to stick with it as long as we are still able to hit our ambitious goals.
Want to keep talking about the four-day work week? Join the conversation on Twitter. 😊