Why the best companies work a four-day week
Building a major software development company with 115 employees and 10 offices across the US and Europe is a major achievement. But what really makes it stand out is they only work a 4 day week. FOUR! DAYS! A! WEEK! Is it 1977? Are we in France? What’s going on?
We had a chat with Thoughtbot CEO Chad Pytel and Head of European Operations Damien tanner at their new office in London…
BIRD: Why a four day week? What’s the idea behind it?
CHAD: We are working five days a week but we have one day as what we call an investment day. It is used for improving ourselves, the company and the community. It can be volunteering, running events, or creating open source code. It means having time set aside each week for things that can be improved within our company, for creating new products, learning new things. For us continuous improvement is a priority and so that’s how we started making sure we had some time for it.
BIRD: Would you claim the credit for this idea, or is this something that other companies are doing as well?
CHAD: There are other companies who do what’s called 20 percent time, Google historically has done that. But, that traditionally was much more of just ‘do what you want’ time, not necessarily ‘Improvement time’.
BIRD: Calling it ‘investments time’ or ‘investment day’, does give it an agenda of adding value…
CHAD: Yes, I think if every company sets aside 20 percent of their effort to improve the world in which they exist, that would have a huge impact.
KATIA: Can you give some examples to what you have done during these investment days?
CHAD: The big part of where that time is spent is open source. It is a code that you write and share for everybody else to use. We’ve built our business on open source technologies, such as Ruby on Rails for example. Giving back through open source is a big part of what we do. But it’s also typical a couple of times a year for our teams to go and do volunteering at various places, like packing toys for children or any other kind of community involvement. Also we run a lot of events ourselves. For example there’s a group called Women Who Code and some of our offices are heavily involved in that, and run those events at our office spaces.
BIRD: What are the benefits of four-day week for your paying clients?
CHAD: Technically, they’re not paying for the investment day. Our rate is for four days. But having that fifth day for improvement makes us happier and more focused on work. So there is a real practical benefit. When we were working on client work five days a week, that meant if we needed to have a company meeting or do a review, or had a company event, it would take time away from the client. So having a day just for us allows us to then spend those four days totally devoted to the client work. Also because we’re learning new things and improving ourselves it makes us more efficient. For example, one of the open source things we created is a system for user log-ins on websites. With it in five minutes we can have a complete website that has user accounts. We’ve created it during investment time and now we leverage it during client time to go even faster.
DAMIEN: Technology is not a static industry and it’s changing very fast, so unless you can have that time to learn new skills and improve, you’re not going to be able to provide a great service to your clients. So having investment time makes a big difference to the quality of work we can do.
BIRD: I can certainly see that value. How does it work for the employees, how do they respond to this?
CHAD: I think it’s one of the primary reasons why people think thoughtbot is a great place for them to work. It also helps us to collaborate. Everyone, the whole company is in Slack together. Monday to Thursday everyone is in their local teams working on projects with clients. On Fridays there is more cross-company internal projects and conversations. There are a lot of book clubs where people are reading the same book, and then they get together and discuss it. The books are mostly on tech or design, somehow work related.
BIRD: Why isn’t everybody else doing it?
DAMIEN: Well, it’s a scary thing for companies. Businesses probably think that it means 20 percent less revenue. We couldn’t ever do that without taking into account all the other benefits which are harder to measure.
CHAD: I believe that it’s not a 20 percent net reduction in productivity, because people get better, faster and they’re more excited about work. And if you’re giving back to the community at the same time as improving your own company, that’s worth spending some productivity on. It is also good in terms of retaining people. They know the benefits of the system, and they know that it’s very unlikely that they could have the same thing somewhere else.
BIRD: Do you ever get to the point when you’ve got to get a project finished and you take away the investment day?
CHAD: No, normally we achieve everything we plan to within 4 days. Sometimes when we are building the first version of a product, everyone needs to get in the room together, do a bunch of exercises, and it’s a five day process, so we take the full week for that. Working five days on a client is not the end of the world, and we might get two investment days the next week to make up for it. But, if we don’t, it’s not the end of the world either. We try to make it work and be pragmatic about it. But in terms of compromising it like, ‘we just have to work this day’, that doesn’t really happen.
KATIA: Is it just Fridays that are spent on doing good?
CHAD: No, we have done bigger projects as well. For example we’ve done a big charity project in US, an investment program called Cultivate Colorado. We took applications from non- profits and social good corporations to build a new product for them, and there were multiple rounds of judging. We selected an organisation called Colorado Open Lands which helps people protect land and keep it open. So we ended up working for a month for free with that non-profit organisation. That’s a whole different thing than investment day. And we’d like to work with more charities and social enterprises.
KATIA: Are you looking for more partnerships with UK charities?
DAMIEN: Yes, we are interested in working on digital projects for social enterprises. I think that a lot of organisations sometimes simply don’t have the funds or the internal capabilities to build a good digital project. So, even if it’s just a day to give guidance on how they can approach building an app or something, or even if it’s a bigger project such as a week-long design, wireframing, and producing it, we can help.