Image: Jane Sherman

At the last Washington state legislative session, state senator Joe Nguyen and three others sponsored a bill that would trim the standard 40-hour workweek to 32. It didn’t gain traction. But with the coronavirus pandemic hastening remote office setups, imperiling our mental health, and roiling our concept of time (is it Wednesday? Saturday?), employers have begun to reexamine their workplace norms; why not consider less time on-the-clock? We asked Nguyen and two CEOs who’ve adopted the four-day week why others should get on board. The conversation, held over Zoom, has been edited for clarity. 

► Dan Giuliani, CEO and co-founder, Volt

► Mikaela Kiner, CEO and founder, Reverb

► Joe Nguyen, state senator, 34th Legislative District

 

Listen to the whole conversation:

 

What's wrong with our current 40-hour workweek? What's broken?

► JN: The reason why we had the idea for a 32-hour workweek was, if you look at the United States over the past 100 years, when [the 40-hour week] was first [legally] implemented in 1940, the average workweek was 100 hours, at six days a week. [Note: The hourly average wasn’t that high, but it was substantially greater than 40 hours.] And for the past 80 or so years, we haven't really changed that paradigm. So from a high-level perspective, the nature of work, the productivity, and how we go about living today is a lot different than it was 80 years ago. Being able to acknowledge that fact is one of the key things that I think is important to support workers and workers' rights. There’s been a tremendous amount of studies of folks that have done four-day workweeks and seeing productivity actually increase. So for me, it was not just the right thing to do to support workers in this paradigm that we exist in today. But in fact, it's actually good for businesses, and even the businesses that oftentimes will be reactionary against this.

I had a lot of feedback from restaurant folks that were not happy about the bill. And I was like, "It's actually not going to pass because it didn't make it out of committee, so you should be OK." But what's funny is that the studies done in that space—even Shake Shack, they have a four-day workweek [at some locations]—they've seen increased productivity and happiness, and they've seen better output from their workers because they were happy in that space. You'd be surprised at how much more effective your workers can be when they're happy.

► DG: I can speak personally for us and how we came across the shift to the four-day workweek. It's actually kind of similar, but instead of thinking about the longer-term, 100-year history of working, we thought about, hey, what changed when this pandemic descended upon us? Ours was very much a response to the increasing anxiety and stress just in the world around us, and I was actually a four-day skeptic going into it. It took for me a really fundamental shift in my own thinking about what we were doing here with our seven days a week, and whether it made sense or not given the context of the world around us.

We were looking at it and saying, hey, our five-to-two cadence wasn't giving us enough time to recover for the next Monday. We'd wake up Monday morning, and we still felt drained, still felt stressed. We're looking at a calendar of a five-day gauntlet. This just can't be the cycle that we repeat every single week. So we stepped back, and we said, hey, we got to think about this from an empathetic, kind of humanitarian perspective first. If we're dealing with all these stresses outside of our lives, that are new, that have been added to our plates in, for many of us, early March, what do we need to do as a business to help our employees find some new balance, and how do we give them time to recover so that they can bring the best version of themselves to the virtual office? And if they can bring an upgraded version to the office four days a week, we would much prefer that over that cycle of getting beaten down and feeling like you're just obligated to be there five days because that's what we've always done.

► MK: For me, the first time that I ever personally wanted a four-day week was when I became a parent. I had both my kids when I was working at Microsoft, and I remember, especially with both of them in the first year, feeling like, if I could have a four-day week, and just have that extra day to recover or run the personal errands that I need to when certain businesses and banks and things are open, I probably never would have left that job. I think the fatigue of two kids, long weeks, plus commute, etc., was just too much. So that was the first time it occurred to me. And then pretty far into my corporate career, I just started to really burn out on—I just called it face time versus flex time. Even [at] companies that do offer that flexibility, if you need to leave for an appointment or stay home because the plumber is coming, [there’s] still this general assumption that you should show up every morning, and then generally you shouldn't leave until evening, which had actually nothing to do with what work was on your plate or whether that work would be better done from home, or you didn't have any meetings from three to five, or something like that.

What I found by starting my own business was that it gave me the opportunity to recognize when and how I'm more productive and work in that way. I started really early on just doing…meeting-free Friday which, it might not have meant that I took Friday off, but it would be a very light day. It would allow me to catch up going into the weekend, kind of like what Dan was saying, so I could fully enjoy my weekend. And then us too, with the pandemic, going into the summer, we just felt like, people are stressed. There's so much anxiety. That was also our way to say, if we're going to keep balance and have some free time and energy to enjoy the weekend, that we really needed that Friday free. I always called it “to decompress,” just to kind of catch up and take care of yourself an extra little bit.

 

So what I'm hearing is that this isn't just a psychological benefit that you can reap from this but actually a productivity benefit as well. Is that fair to say?

►  JN: Also environmental. If you look at some of the studies done in other countries as well, they've seen that businesses who've gone to four-day workweeks will spend less in terms of their employees commuting to work. They don't necessarily have to have the energy going on in the businesses themselves. They use less, say, for instance, paper. So in terms of a carbon emissions perspective, a four-day workweek is actually better for the environment, too.

► DG: I'm thinking from the perspective of knowledge workers. So, we're a technology startup, 25 people, we're not commuting anyway. We're all remote, and we're thinking about how do we give people some delineation in their lives? How do we break up—I'm in my living room, right now, this is where I work, this is where I relax—and if we don't give people some of that structure, to say, hey, we're going to take four days, we're not going to just throw our hands up and say, the whole world is yours. But we're going to give as much back as we feel like we can, we're going to try to find that balance so that people can really build the kind of fulfilling parts of their lives that maybe they don't get the opportunity to engage with otherwise. So part of it is just that mental balance. Part of it is giving people an opportunity, if they want to learn a new language or they want to go hike on a trail that's not overcrowded on the weekend, or they want to—you know, I call my sister every Friday afternoon because we're adults; we don't have time to chat. We chat for an hour every Friday. That is massively important to me and kind of making myself feel whole as a person in the world beyond just what I'm doing for my job. So I think that psychological element is really important.

The productivity side is really interesting. We're a company that doesn't—we don't make widgets. We don't measure our productivity by our revenue or by our sales. [Giuliani later clarified that the company doesn’t use short-term sales or revenue figures to measure productivity.] I think there's too many variables, too many inputs to decide whether we are actually more or less productive. So we asked our employees, about six weeks into our compressed four-day schedule, we said, “What do you think? Are you more productive? Do you think your team is more productive? Do you think the company is more productive?” And they unanimously came across and said, “Hey, we're doing better, or least as good, as a company with the four-day schedule.” So if we can knock 20 percent off from the expected time in a virtual office, and we can at least maintain a flat productivity, if not a little bit up? That's a huge win for the other benefits.

► MK: For us, it's our staff who observe this. Our consultants, number one, they're independent. Number two, a lot of them work part-time anyway; that's why they work with us is because they can have that flexibility. But I just look at it sheerly as the projects, the internal operations that we have to take care of, as well as client responsiveness. Our goal is to respond to every client inquiry in four hours or less. And we've been able to fulfill all of that while taking the Fridays off. So I would give it a definite yes. I think of when people are working 40 hours, or used to be in the office 40 hours, how much of that time are we needing to take care of something personal, anyway, or take a break or grab the extra cup of coffee, because our brains are just not built to focus in that way? I think we're just giving ourselves the time that we need to do a lot of that other stuff on that extra day off.

 

I think you've all kind of touched on it, but one of the things I was curious about is...how this could be implemented across industries, or whether this felt like it fit for certain types of jobs and maybe not for other types of jobs.

► DG: I think Joe's probably done the most thinking about other industries.

► JN: [laughs] I confronted that very, very quickly in the legislature. I tend to be very bombastic in the way that I legislate. And this was one of those things where I wanted to highlight the fact that our society is a bit unjust in terms of work and workers' rights. Certainly when we dropped this bill, there was a lot of people who were scared, because the way that it's crafted is essentially, if you work over 32 hours, it's overtime, because that's how our laws work. But the idea was that you'd pay the same, you'd work 32 hours, and that was the goal. So various industries, like Dan had said, in knowledge industries, like in tech, this makes more sense. Some folks are already doing it, obviously, as we've noted. And during the pandemic, we've seen a lot of people do it now that weren't before, that seem to be doing fine.

But the biggest concerns that we've had from different industries, largely the hospitality and retail side, is that they feel oftentimes their margins are so thin already, if they were to give people four-day workweeks, they won't be able to actually have enough profit in order to make that work. And it depends on kind of who you talk to. I'm not necessarily an expert in all the different industries. But certainly we've seen cases that, again, productivity could go up given that people feel more rested and prepared for the day. But the biggest pushback that I saw, that we heard from, was largely retail and hospitality…. Conservatives, they really don't like this, from my perspective.... One of these conservative shows put up a poll to their audience saying, "Would you want a four-day workweek?" Of course everybody says yes.... In our culture, in America, we have this idea that work is life—that if you work less, your value is less. That was something that I encountered that I did not expect, in the sense that people were so ingrained with a 40-hour workweek, not because they wanted to work or needed to, but because it showed that they were valuable. That was probably one of the weirdest things that I saw.

► DG: Joe, I have a question for you just about the retail and hospitality space, sort of logistically how this would work because it's such a different world than what I'm thinking about on a day-to-day basis. I'm trying to put myself in the head space of somebody running a company that's in that world. Think about hospitality as an example, right. There’s a limit to the amount of volume of business that they can have come in their doors during certain hours. So if they, for instance, said, “Hey, we're going to keep the exact same amount of staff. We're going to pay them the same amount. We're only going to ask them to work 80 percent of what we used to.” They would naturally have to either understaff some of the hours or kind of cut down the amount of time that they are open or staffing, right. [Are] there other creative ways that they might be able to implement the 32-hour workweek, but still kind of maintain the always available hospitality standard?

► JN: Yeah, you know, what's funny, there was a thrift shop in Olympia [Dumpster Values], that when this came out, it came out that they actually had a four-day workweek for them as well. We were able to see in action a company that was able to do it well. And [they were] just making sure that as they were staggering the schedules…the individual would work a four-day workweek, [but] it just wouldn't be [an extra day off on one] particular day. They would just figure it out that way.

So, yeah, you're right, if you look at it from an economic perspective, you potentially would be either hiring more people to fill up those other days, or you'd staff down a little bit less, but then those folks would be getting paid more. To me, those are very legitimate concerns that people have. But I think, if they were given, for instance, an incentive to do so—there's a guy in New Zealand, who is the champion of the four-day workweek, and he did this for his company. And I ended up having a conversation with him about it. What's funny is that he brought up all the concerns that I heard while I was running this bill, and he was like, hey, look, for certain industries or industries where it doesn't make sense, you'd be more likely to have a tax incentive so they can then potentially pay their employees more to cover that gap and then inspire other people to do it as well. Because I think, with Covid, what we're going to see is that so many companies are doing it with great success, that this is a new paradigm that's going to move forward. So I think it is a good idea. But you're right, there's going to be some industries that are going to be harder than others.

 

OK, to play devil's advocate a bit from a worker's perspective: We think about Friday afternoon: productivity’s dropping, we're thinking about the weekend—let's think pre-pandemic times. In looking at this, in both your own experiences and looking across the business world, psychologically, do people transfer that Friday drop in productivity to Thursday afternoon, and Thursday afternoon [then becomes] the new Friday afternoon?....Do you think we would see that mindset shift?

► DG: For us, it's actually a really interesting way to think about it. One of the great benefits of shifting to this four-day schedule is that Wednesdays, that used to feel like the middle of the week and the hump day that was really tough to get through, you're already on the back slope of your week, when you're into this compressed [schedule]. And that fundamentally changes the way it feels to go to work on a Wednesday. Thursday is your Friday, right, like you're describing. I don't feel myself [losing productivity] because I still have energy. The reason you burn out on Friday isn't because it's the last day of the week. It's because you've put everything in that you've got. You're sitting there, and I'm sitting in this exact location on Friday afternoon before we put our four-day workweek in, and I'm a co-founder of our business, I have so much on the line. I have every reason to be motivated. And I can't bring myself to engage because I'm just done. Whatever bandwidth I've got is wiped out. It doesn't happen on Thursday for me. What happens is, I'm pumped Thursday evening to be able to put the workweek to bed. I'm actually excited to wake up Friday morning.

This is a very odd sort of, maybe Dan-centric feeling, but I wake up Friday mornings, and I still do a lot of work because I have stuff to do. But I don't have anybody controlling my world. I don't get pings on Slack. I don't get emails that I have to deal with. I get to do the things that enrich me and then enrich our company, from my perspective. I get to take a step back and think strategically, not putting out fires all the time. I get those hours back as an autonomous individual within the organization and that is, I think, really the critical and key difference between the normal five-day schedule and what we've moved to, which is this flex Fridays concept, where there's no obligation to work on Friday at all. It's your day. You do whatever you want. But if you have work to do, or you want to do work, or you want to do something that you find productive, that's your prerogative as well. But nobody's going to synchronously connect with you. There's no meetings. You're not going to get any messages. You're not going to have to deal with anything, unless it's an emergency, just like Saturday and Sunday. And that is a really critical difference. But Thursday, I'm full speed ahead all through the end of the day, and then I'm able to kind of slow it down and get Friday back.

► MK: I would second that Thursday evening energy. I'm the same. I'm the founder. Today, I think I had three or four calls. But I was so energized last night, in particular. This is, I guess, my first or second flex Friday. Going from the summer Friday, where we really tried to take off, to more of a flex. There's something very exciting about knowing it's going to be a light day. I have a lot of freedom within the day. I had to go pick up my new glasses, and I was able to grab someone for my daughter who's doing the online school. I took a couple calls in the morning, took a couple in the afternoon. But also just that, if I have to catch up on a few emails, or do some writing or something like that, the lack of pressure and the uninterrupted time is also—it's really freeing. Some of it might be the novelty, but I get really excited about Friday. And then I personally try to disconnect quite a bit Saturday, Sunday. I don't really bother with emails, except, I'm a planner. I like to see what's going on Sunday evening so I don't walk into any surprises. But I feel like that that's the secondary benefit. It just allows you to check out for the weekend if you want to.

► DG: If I could add one more thing about the way that the week has changed, at least for me and from the feedback we've gotten from our team—and we've done a lot of work to kind of solicit that feedback, both in anonymous surveys and also checking in with everybody along the way just to see how they're handling their time—is Monday morning feels different, too, because there's this term that we use it at Volt: It's the "Sunday scaries." And it's how you're feeling Sunday night when you have this trepidation about work starting back up on Monday and all of the things you're going to have to do and the big week ahead of you. That seems to click in for me, right around 2 or 3pm on Sunday, and the rest of my Sunday is just, it's anxiety. It's thinking about, what do I have to do so that I'm not immediately crushed Monday morning by all this work? But because I've had Friday to get myself mentally caught up from the week before and prep for what's going to be coming next week, I can put that to rest, and I actually have my Sunday evenings back. I wake up Monday morning, and I'm like, oh, great. I'm ready for this week, because I've had the time to recover. And that makes such a critical difference.

My background is actually originally in strength and conditioning and performance training, where stress and recovery is the ultimate balance. You train, you stress the body, you recover, and then you adapt, and you are more capable than you were before the stress, this elevated level of what's called homeostasis. And that's the same thing that's happening [in the workplace], but we're not giving people time to recover. We're hammering them for five days. Then they don't recover. They show up on Monday, they're a worse version of themselves than they were the previous week. That cycle degrades you over time. With this four-and-three schedule, it doesn't feel that way. It's a different recovery paradigm. You can actually show up and you can be a better you Monday through Thursday. I think that’s a benefit that—we haven't seen what that's going to result in over time, but I'm very confident in what it means in terms of our ability to take care of our people and, in turn, have a better version of our staff and upgraded version of our team coming to work on those four days.

 

I'm wondering if the pandemic has moved us closer to adoption of this four-day week, if you all have heard of companies and employers, more companies and employers, if not going fully to a four-day week, offering something like a monthly company holiday or flex Fridays.

► MK: I’ve definitely heard of companies adding wellness days...and some also going from saying, "Hey, you can take an added day” to try to sort of enforce like, "Please take an added day out of your week." I do [think it’s moved us closer]. I'm hoping it's one of the silver linings, is that it is going to have long-term influence and impact. I don't know if this fits here or not, but I wanted to build on something else that Joe had mentioned too, and just about this whole notion of working to live. I think we're seeing these really strong generational differences and preferences, where we've got younger generations who are not signing up for that and lot of research that people would prefer flexibility or a shorter week over more pay or promotion. There's also this long-term idea of, how are you going to interact and engage people? And I think having more flexibility, and enabling people to pursue their interests, hobbies, and personal goals outside of work, is going to play a huge role there as well.

► DG: I think there's a raised consciousness across the board for the challenges that people are going through in a way that there wasn't pre-pandemic. I think that it was easy as a manager, or somebody who's running a company, to see your employees in the office, and then when they leave, kind of not think as much about them as people outside of that environment. You kind of give them their space. They're who they are. But look at us now. We're looking into each other's homes, and we have these insights. I think we were forced to become more empathetic, just as a corporate environment, because everyone's going through something really hard, generationally difficult, maybe something more difficult than anything will go through again in our lives. It's affecting billions of people worldwide. I think just that knowledge and understanding that, you know, it's difficult. You don't really know what people are going through, but you can assume that they are, in some ways, being affected by this more than they're letting on through their Zoom screen.

Because of that, I think we are much more interested in thinking through, how do we help people be whole? And taking a more humanitarian perspective, I think, as people who are in the company. If our employees are going to give us a big chunk of their lives, they're going to give us that time, I think it's our responsibility and our duty to think through how we want to structure that time so that we can give as much of it back as realistically possible. So that flexibility and finding that balance that works for each team or each industry or each company, I think is becoming much more practical and more logical. I think it's making more sense to people who are in positions that I was in six months ago and would never have considered a four-day workweek until something like this global pandemic kind of forced the issue.

►  JN: What's funny is that I actually still work at Microsoft as well. In the legislature I work part-time. I work at Microsoft during most of the year and the legislature during other parts of the year. And it's interesting seeing the balance of the both, where I do have managers now who were like, I did not think that remote working was going to be feasible. But we shipped more code. We've been shipping more code than we did before the pandemic. But Mikaela, you brought up a good point. The idea of work, too, is that, unfortunately, with our economic system, that not everybody gets a chance to reap the benefits. Oftentimes they do require, say, for instance, a side hustle or being able to use their hobbies as a way to generate income as well. And that provides them with more flexibility in that sense. In addition to having that ability to have that mental break, or the flexibility, in general, for a lot of people, especially right now during the pandemic when they're underemployed or unemployed, having another day where they can potentially pick up a side gig or do something else gives them the freedom to do so as well. So there's a couple of benefits from it.

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