Insights from two years of working 4 day weeks
I recently joined an internal panel talk at Blinkist, to share our learnings and approach to 4 day work weeks at Buffer. So I thought that it would be perfect content to summarise and share in a blog post. So here it is! 🎉
How we do 4 day work weeks at Buffer!
We have been doing 4 day work weeks at Buffer for almost 2 years now. We started in May 2020 as a 3-month experiment and we have not looked back.
For the first 3-month experiment we opened it up for teams to pick a day of the week that worked best for them. Most teams either chose a Wednesday or Friday. Those who picked Wednesday reported having that feeling of two Mondays, where you arrive at work energetic and ready to go, but also needed to catch up from the previous day and settle in. Also with having different teams take different days off, it was harder to keep track of who was working when and it made the 4 days less efficient if you needed to wait an extra day for someone to return.
Once the experiment ended we settled on a Friday for the whole company which has worked smoother for all. We don’t look at Fridays as a strict day off but rather it can be on overflow day if needed. Ideally, we don’t need it or use it. In our most recent survey, 84% of the team found that they could do their work in the 4 days. We also offer flexibility to those who want to rather work on Fridays but have more flexibility on Monday to Thursday. The key is to communicate it ensure to others know what to expect.
I really believe this flexibility and leaning into trusting your team with knowing what works for them is vital to making this work.
What have you learned about productivity during this time?
Productivity does not equal hours worked. Rather it is a result of being engaged in the work that you do and in your ability to deeply focus for chunks of time and to get into that creative flow.
The key element to productivity is to focus on knowing and understanding your own energy levels and what makes you most productive and then to ensure that you are working in ways that align with this. For example, if you focus best in the morning, block your mornings for heads-down work and rather have syncs in the afternoons. Communicate these to your team and manager and have everyone respect each other’s way of working. If a morning run gives you energy for the day, don’t skip it to squeeze in that extra hour of work.
You can expect that there will be an increased feeling of intensity on your 4 days of working. By guarding your own energy systems this added intensity won’t have a negative impact on you or the team.
Something fun that we have been recently leaning into is walking 1–1s so that we get out of the office, get fresh air and finish calls feeling fresh vs experiencing zoom fatigue and needing a break. We have been using trying out a tool called Spot.mt which scribes the call for you, so you don’t forget anything that was said.
A final thought on productivity is that I also think it is important to understand what productivity looks like for your company.
For us, at Buffer, productivity is moving fast by delivering small bits of value consistently and embracing small amounts of risk on the way. It is not working on big projects that take 6 months to deliver and trying to meet that way out goal date. And then embracing small amounts of risk means that we have that psychology safety in knowing that we are okay with occasionally releasing something that introduces a bug or doing something that is not perfect, as long as we have the system in place to quickly spot it, revert, fix or adapt it.
Have you come up with new ways of working?
I really wish I could say here is the one thing that will make all the difference, but the truth is it was a combination of small changes to our daily habits and approaches to work that has really helped us.
In many ways, these are all the same habits that helped us to be successful with remote working, and 4 day work weeks forced us to be more intentional again with some of them.
For us these key things were:
- Working smaller Looking at big projects and breaking them down into smaller iterations of value. Working on technical improvements and shifts in architecture, bit by bit as we deliver on our product goals. Working smaller also extends to things like shortening feedback loops and frequency of communication within the team or between your and your customers.
- Breaking down knowledge silos and strict role responsibilities thereby giving the team full autonomy to drive and own something end to end. The idea here is to give individuals the knowledge and autonomy to deliver on their work from end to end. This means being able to make decisions themselves without waiting for the consent of others. An internal mantra that we use around decision making is “If you can reverse it, do it”. And in accepting that there will be times that we make the wrong decision and that’s okay. We just course correct.
- Revisiting time spent in synchronous meetings vs what we can do async and our teams started leaning more into going async for context gathering, individual brainstorming or reflecting on topics and then using meeting time for final decision or to ensure alignment. Quick loom videos are something that can help avoid time spent writing and reading long walls of text.
Lastly sharing our small wins, learnings from across the team together really helped to distill this culture. Something small that we introduced within EPD (engineering, product, design) was a slack channel called epd-celebrations-and-learnings where the engineers and team dropped notes for all of the small things that we ship. I think this helped us with that sense of wow, we are doing a lot of great work. This helps engagement and motivation to see progress and achievements as a larger group.
Sometimes that feeling of not moving fast enough or that feeling of we are not making progress also comes from a lack of visibility on the things that teams are actually doing.
What was surprising about the shift?
It would have to be that in that 3-month experiment we were able to validate the hypothesis that hours worked does not equal productivity.
Just before we started with this experiment, within engineering, we began to use a tool, Code Climate Velocity, to help provide us with data-driven insights and stats on how the team is delivering their work. Within this tool, they have a metric called impact score which uses their own internal algorithm to determine the significance of all the changes to the codebase over time. For the duration of the 3 months, this score did not change and rather had a slight increase. This metric is by no means a conclusive measure of engineering productivity but it was a great indication that productivity was not heavily impacted by this change. This combined with high team engagement scores was enough validation for us to give the double thumbs up to continue with 4 day work weeks.
Now I am not saying that you should expect 100% the same output as one would with 5 days, but with good intentional focus it could be close enough. Our Customer Advocacy team, where output is arguably more closely correlated with time spent in the inbox, found that they could safely adjust weekly ticket volume goals to 90% of previous goals, even with the team working at 80% capacity. This close enough output combined with a happier and more engaged, full-filled team counts for a lot more over time.
Also to add that for business metrics, we saw no significant change. Revenue growth, New Signs-ups, Monthly Active Users, all performed in line with what they were doing prior to this change.
Is there anything you’re still finding challenging after a year?
The biggest challenge that we experienced, which also coincided with the pandemic, was that the team started to feel less and less connected to each other across the company and departments.
The first thing that people naturally dropped were the casual water-cooler type conversations, casual zoom hangouts and then that coupled with not meeting in person it really began to take its toll.
So this is something we are still working a lot on. We have started regular water-cooler topics, such as a daily gratitude challenge, or Thursday trivia questions and we add the whole team back into our scheduled donut chats. We have also introduced monthly company all-hands vs holding them quarterly. The monthly all hands are now more casual where we have different voices across teams sharing new things they are working on, or approaches they are taking. And lastly our CEO, Joel is communicating to the team more frequently, even weekly at the moment, to bring that connection back to our mission and purpose as a business. So a lot of these smaller touchpoints have really been helping us to connect again as a company.