May 12, 2022
The 4-Day Workweek Advantage: Doing More With Less
Our mission at Mayday is to coordinate the world’s time so that everyone’s schedule is aligned with their priorities. We’re not just building another calendar, but we’re helping busy people improve their productivity and wellbeing by spending time in better ways. We believe that our work towards this goal should not only be reflected in the products that we build, but also in the way we work as a team.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how to optimize our own team and how the software we build can help us — to enable less wasted time, fewer needless meetings, more focus, and managed energy. Three months ago, we began an experiment to rethink how a remote-first team like ours can function. We did this by optimizing our organization around a 4-day workweek.
As human beings we shape our lives around the measurement of time. We build our routines and our habits around times of the day, days of the week, and months of the year. But rarely do we take a step back and question what we’re doing and why. Why is 5 days, Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm, the right amount of consecutive work days? While it feels like we’ve been working the way we work forever, the modern workweek structure is a product of recent history, and we believe that there’s better way.
A Brief History of Time
We’ve spent the last ~4,000 years or so using the concepts of years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Most of these are derived from orbital movements and numerical systems, with one notable exception: the week.
First defined as a 7-day cycle in 2,000 BCE, the week originally paid tribute to the 7 non-fixed celestial bodies visible to the naked eye by ancient Babylonians: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. By 500 BCE (following the Jewish exile in Babylon), the 7-day cycle was affirmed in the Judeo-Christian tradition with the writing of the Book of Genesis.
By the seventh day God finished the work he had been doing, so he rested from all his work
At the time, there was no distinction between “work day” and “week day”. In an agricultural society, constant work was required to survive and meet basic needs. But as technology evolved and society matured, distinctions between days of the week began to emerge.
The first influences were religious. In the Western world, Jewish communities began to observe Saturday sabbath as a day of rest, while Christian communities reserved Sundays for weekly mass. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution however when masses of workers moved from farms to factories that these distinctions between days of rest and days of work really began to matter.
In 1908 — just over 100 years ago — a mill in New England became the first American factory to be structured around the 5-day workweek (to accommodate the spiritual needs of both Jewish and Christian workers). This trend began to take hold across factories across the Western world, and in 1926 Henry Ford standardized the 5-day workweek in his factories without reducing employees’ pay, in part to provide employees more leisure time to drive cars.
The 5-day workweek as we know it became entrenched in Western society by 1940, when the Fair Labor Standards Act mandated a nationwide 40-hour workweek in the US. But why did we stop here?
In the last 82 years, a lot has changed. Agriculture, manufacturing, and other manual-labour based industries are no longer dominant. We now have computers, the Internet, and access to more information than we know what to do with. The fundamental nature of our work has changed, but the way we work hasn’t.
The Future of Work
In 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” where he theorized the goals and potential outcomes from industrialization on productivity. One of the major outcomes he predicted was that by the year 2028, technological advances would reduce the workweek to a mere 15 hours per week.
There is a consistent pattern among most nations: as a country becomes more developed, its people need to work less to achieve the same output. This trend holds true to a point, but the average workweek today among majority OECD countries bottoms out around 30 hours. The average American works 34 hours per week.
Many academics have theorized on why Keynes’ vision for a 15-hour workweek did not materialize — whether it was due to underestimation of humanity’s competitive nature, Western gender norms and roles in the home, or institutionalized inefficiencies that promote presence over performance.
But of all of the hypotheses for why we continue to work more than twice the number of weekly hours that Keynes’ once predicted, it’s the systemic inefficiencies in our workplaces that hold the most room for improvement.
After the last 80+ years of the 5-day workweek model, inefficiency in the modern workplace is everywhere. We waste hours in recurring meetings out of habit, not because we need them. We interrupt focused thought on a regular basis with low priority requests from others. We’re simply not intentional with our time because we have so much of it to spend. The future of work is about doing more with less.
The 4-day Workweek at Mayday
There are a lot of reasons why a 4-day workweek is appealing, the most obvious being that it enables more time off and better work/life balance for employees. We live in a remote-first world — one where many employees work where they live and live where they work. By creating more time for employees to unplug and reset, we can enable happier, healthier, more engaged co-workers.
But more counterintuitively, there is considerable evidence (including from our own experience) to suggest that fewer designated “work days” ultimately increases overall productivity and output of the team.
Work fills the space you give it. We found that what used to take us 5 days is now completed by our team in the span of 4, mainly because we intend and expect to complete the work in less time. But transitioning to a 4-day workweek is not as simple as coming in to work one less day each week. Our transition required a systematic evaluation of workplace efficiency.
Authors like Tim Ferriss and Cal Newport have written extensively on this topic. The knowledge economy today is filled with inefficiency and waste. If we want to spend less time on work, but achieve the same if not greater outputs we need to cut out the waste. Cutting out the waste meant identifying behaviours that merely simulate forward motion but don’t actually achieve meaningful progress.
At Mayday, we removed this kind of waste from the old 5-day workweek model by focusing on three core areas in our organization: team culture, asynchronous communication, and meetings.
What you do is who you are. Our culture at Mayday plays a big role in enabling a structured 4-day workweek, starting with three universal team expectations for how we work:
- Ownership at every level — There’s no such thing as someone else’s problem. We’re a solution-oriented team where individuals take initiative from ideation to completion.
- Make less work — We always aim to make the jobs of others easier. Whether it’s finding the right link, adding the notes from the discussion, or troubleshooting what you can on your own — we consider the impact that even small decisions about the way we work have on each other.
- Conversations over comments — Every priority we focus on, everything we build, and every decision we make must be clearly understood by all. This requires strong lines of communication both within and across teams. We aim to over-document when communicating asynchronously, and default to speaking directly with teammates when matters are critical or time sensitive.
These cultural aspects are reinforced throughout the teams at Mayday with clear sprint-related processes and responsibilities across the organization.
For example, we have defined processes around when employees need to be online so that they can work productively with colleagues, but outside of our core in-sync office hours, employees are free to structure and manage their time as it suits their lives.
With these processes and structures in mind, the expectations for individual and team output have not changed. In transitioning to a 4-day workweek, we did not extend our sprint cadence to spread the time out. The team’s objectives in terms of output stayed the same and more time for focus was created with new internal structures and processes. We believe in quality output over quantity input- and if we can create the same or better product output with less time allotted, then individuals deserve to benefit from the time savings.
In taking stock across the team prior to our 4-day workweek transition, one of the biggest time sinks we noticed came from unscheduled interruptions from focus time and the resulting context switching. For the most part, asynchronous communication using internal messaging systems like Slack and email were largely to blame here.
There is a fundamental need in the workplace for some asynchronous communication, but we have found that adopting certain best practices can minimize low value add chatter and disruption that these systems enable by design.
At Mayday, Slack is our primary method for team communication and collaboration. By restructuring our channel makeup to dedicate fewer channels for discussion, more channels for non-alert based reference, and establishing less-disruptive etiquette, we are able to communicate in a more streamlined manner and to reduce interruption, context switching, and hyperactive hive-mind behaviour.
In addition, we leverage Notion as a task management tool to enable asynchronous delegation and coordination of work required to be done. This required a streamlining of our product development processes to ensure needs were properly documented and easily understood.
Finally, we have fully embraced asynchronous video updates as way to kick off each day. These async updates enable specific teams to document progress and provide updates that can be reviewed as required across the team. These also increased the team’s flexibility to start their individual work as soon as possible, without the need for everyone to come online across multiple timezones.
The final area where significant time waste could be found and removed as we transitioned to a 4-day workweek model at Mayday was in our team meetings. While we removed 20% of the time available for meetings, we simultaneously reduced our average weekly meeting time by 50%. This enabled us to actually increase the amount of focused individual time spent at workn while removing an entire scheduled work day.
How did we cut so much meeting time? First, we revisited all of our recurring meetings. We critically assessed which of these was actually necessary and how much time was truly needed in each case. Most full team meetings were cut by 15 minutes and several meetings were removed entirely.
But recurring meetings were only part of the problem. In assessing our current schedules we noticed a fair amount of adhoc one-off meetings to discuss various projects and make decisions. More often than not, these ad-hoc meetings were scheduled a day or two at most before they occurred. This disrupted individual planning and increased context switching.
To solve this, we implemented a new Office Hours model for each major team: Design, Front End Engineering, and Back End Engineering. Team leads set aside one hour each week where anyone on the team can drop in to discuss less urgent matters that require synchronous collaboration. This enabled more blocks of focus time where team members can spend their work hours actually doing their work.
The transition to a 4-day workweek workflow altered every aspect of how we work at Mayday. It forced us to look critically at how we were working together as a team and led to the development of improved processes for how we communicate, plan, and execute.
Based on qualitative feedback and quantitative analysis of this experiment after the first 2 months, the results were unanimously positive across the board. In order to assess the impact clearly, we surveyed the team at multiple intervals and tracked several quantitative indicators for output.
In every way we measure the impact of this transition, the results have been incredibly positive. On average, the team reported a 36% improvement in work/life balance, a 24% reduction in stress about work and a 15% reduction in hours needing to be spent working.
Its worth noting however that over 50% of the team reports working outside of company-defined work hours (Monday to Thursday). But of those that work outside of work hours, the majority report doing so based on personal preference and cite feeling more energized, productive and positive about their work.
From a quantitative perspective, we measured three core areas: development velocity, quality of work, and sprint scope creep. Here we observed the following:
- 20% increase in output from our development team attributed to more focus time and less context switching
- 4% reduction in bug fixes per release attributed to giving our development team clearer objectives and more space to focus on shipping quality work
- 88% reduction in scope creep of sprints attributed to clearer objectives, better planning, and improved communication
And these results are not unique to our experience at Mayday. Over the last few years, there have been numerous experiments like ours all over the world. In 2019, Microsoft Japan piloted a 4-day workweek experiment that resulted in a 20% increase in employee productivity that coincided with a 27% reduction in work stress and a 45% increase in work-life balance. Additional experiments at other companies like Basecamp and Bolt in the US have achieved similar results.
Optimizing organizations to create space for personal wellbeing as well as corporate productivity is a not a gimmicky perk, but a strategic advantage. We believe that we’re embarking on the future of work for software development teams and by pioneering this transition ourselves, we will have the foresight to build functionality directly into Mayday that fosters and supports more productive and balanced teams.