Reimagining the Way We Work - Enter the 4-Day Workweek

Morgan Witham author photo
Morgan Witham Chief Executive Officer

The 4-day workweek, a seemingly radical idea, was the seed I wanted to plant with the rest of my leadership team. “Hear me out…” were the first three words I uttered before laying out what had been stewing in my head for a few months. I’m nothing if not meticulous about my communication when I have a goal of getting wholehearted buy-in. 

I led with data—study after study indicates a happier and more satisfied workforce, productivity shoots up, recruiting and retention improves. I finished with honesty—I don’t actually know if this will work. I don’t have all the answers or possible solutions (yet), but I do have confidence that our team can help us figure it out.

As with many things, the idea started in the car. Last fall, I was listening to a report from NPR about how a 4-day workweek can actually boost productivity. On the one hand, it’s not intuitive. How can working less hours generate more productivity? On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. 

How much better is your work when you’re fully rested and in that coveted “flow state”? Or when you’re inspired and feel that pulse of creativity as you try to solve your way out of a new challenge? After all, nobody is operating at their best and highest level of performance for 40+ hours a week. Still, I spent the next few weeks creating a mental list of all the possible pitfalls and problems with making a move like this.

Here’s what came out of my perspective of the months of research that followed: Why the hell couldn’t we do this successfully?

The Hybrid Workplace

The pandemic has challenged the way we think in myriad ways. As it relates to the workplace, it has challenged the very definition of the term. It has fundamentally changed where and how we work, and frankly it’s not a bad thing. Prior to discussing the possibility of a 4-day workweek, we decided to put a stake in the ground to address the question of whether or not we would return to the office. At COLAB, we decided the answer is that our team members can decide. We believe that incredible work isn’t a result of where you work but rather how you work. 

“…we are each a co-creator of our collective hybrid workplace.”

A hybrid workplace at COLAB means we have a flexible structure whereby some of our team members work remotely and some work in our office. But it’s each individual’s choice. That means we are each a co-creator of our collective hybrid workplace. We will keep our office in Richmond, Virginia, because we value having a space where we can collaborate and bring the team together when we need to. And we fundamentally believe in the importance of connecting with each other in a physical space, even if that doesn’t happen every day. After all, humans are neurologically wired to connect and socialize with other humans.

The hybrid workplace wasn’t the only decision we had been contemplating. We were considering other ways that we could improve the lives of our team members, attract the very best talent, and reach our goal of higher-than-industry-average retention. Summer Fridays, monthly company-wide mental health days, and unlimited PTO were options we considered. But they all seemed to fall short in one way or another.

“[the 4-day workweek] democratizes time off because we will all be taking off those same 52 Fridays.”

Unlimited PTO, for example, is one benefit that I’ve always had some beef with. While popular with digital agencies, it can be superficial in its outcomes, often resulting in less time being taken off, not more. Studies show that employees can feel guilty about taking the time off they actually want. It can cause conflict between team members who may perceive others as taking too much time off to the team’s detriment. And managers may even subtly or unintentionally discourage their team from taking off more time. This is one area where the 4-day workweek really shines—it democratizes time off because we will all be taking off those same 52 Fridays. And of course we still provide vacation time for longer stretches of time away from work.

As We Say, So Must We Do

If rethinking the way we work at COLAB in order to improve the lives of our team members and attract great talent was the first motive for considering a 4-day workweek, the solidification of our brand positioning was the second. We consider ourselves a WebOps agency. WebOps is a framework for building and optimizing a website so it constantly evolves to the needs of the entire organization. It means we build a solid foundation that’s scalable and flexible, we embrace an agile(ish) process, we regularly measure and analyze, and we continue to iterate and optimize indefinitely. 

“…we decided we will build and optimize the way we work to constantly evolve to our collective needs.”

By applying that same philosophy to our workplace, we decided we will build and optimize the way we work to constantly evolve to our collective needs. Enter our 4-day workweek pilot program. Our hypothesis is that transforming the very definition of “workweek” at COLAB will positively impact, expedite our progress toward, and solidify our success in both our short- and long-term goals. These are goals that we review every quarter with the entire company; they are both quantitative and qualitative goals that unite us, help us all row in the same direction, and inspire us along the way.

What started with “Hear me out…” ended with a leadership team fully bought into the idea of testing out a new way of working. This pilot is an acknowledgment that increasing personal satisfaction has a direct and meaningful impact on the productivity and quality of our work. It’s a reflection of our desire to empower our team members to do more. We firmly believe:

  • Our team can do the work in four days rather than five (and perhaps even better). 
  • More time outside of work will provide fuel for our curiosity, creativity, and engagement at work. 
  • Attention, even more so than time, is the most precious resource we have.

We want that attention to be acutely and intensely focused at work, so we can produce the best work of our lives here at COLAB. And then we want that attention to shift and be spent with people and doing things that truly inspire our lives beyond work.

The Pilot – An Agile Process

As we embark on our three-month pilot, we are empowering our team to be actively involved in the creation and refinement of the program. The leadership team will provide the framework and some of the non-negotiable measurables. From there, it will be a collective and collaborative effort where together we will set a baseline, together we will implement the initial plan, and together we will measure our performance and continually tweak and evolve the program. We will be transparent about what’s working and what’s not working, and we will prioritize what we need to solve or mitigate.

The purpose behind this pilot is quite simple. We want to:

  1. Increase our team members’ satisfaction at COLAB.
  2. Increase our ability to attract and retain the best talent in the industry.
  3. Increase the quality of our work and the value we create for our clients.
  4. Achieve our goals as identified in our 10-, 3-, and 1-year plans and in our weekly tracked measurables.

Clarity around our objectives is another critical part of the framework for this pilot. And not only clear measurables but also clear expectations. 

We’ll identify what we’re measuring and how, and be clear in our expectations of each team member’s role. Namely, that every single person contributes to the outcome of this pilot, that each person helps identify and mitigate problems, that everyone works towards solutions, and, true to one of our core values (authenticity), we are open and honest at every step along the way. 

What’s the Catch?

Doing the best work of our lives. That’s truly it. We’re not decreasing salaries to be commensurate with 20% less time at work. We’re not eliminating other forms of PTO. We just expect incredible work. We believe that if our team has more time to themselves – to spend with family and friends, to enjoy leisure time or hobbies, to take care of minds and bodies, or to volunteer in the community—they’ll come to work more engaged, more creative, and with the ability to focus their attention more effectively. 

There are questions we don’t know the answers to yet, but we’re confident that if we stay true to our purpose for trying this pilot, the results will follow.

We believe it so much, we’re willing to bet the next three months on it. And honestly, with a team like ours, why the hell wouldn’t we be successful?