How our 4-day work week turned into a 2 year failed experiment

Lachy Gray, 4 min read

How our 4-day work week turned into a 2 year failed experiment
"When there’s less time to work, there’s less time to waste" – Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp

For three years before starting Yarno, I worked 40 hours in 4 days. And I loved it.

The four days I was in the office I was focused and organised. I communicated more clearly with my colleagues and clients.

I had to work smarter, rather than harder. And I had the fifth day to unplug from work altogether. Do life admin, read, write a blog post, meditate and exercise.

I’d return to work on Monday refreshed and energised.

I feel as though I was sick less often. And I took fewer holidays too because I had a micro-break each week, rather than a macro break (standard 1 or 2 week holiday) every 6 months.

Why we implemented a 4-day week

So when Mark and I started Yarno, we saw the 4-day week as a critical foundation for our new company. Here was our chance to buck the trend, and see if we could make 4 days work at a startup.

There was, and still is I guess, a perception that working 80hr weeks at a startup is the norm. Which I’ve never understood. If anything I think there’s an inverse relationship between work hours and quality of output. Anyway…

In March 2016, I wrote Why we work a 4 day week. It was an attempt to explain our thinking at the time.

I’ve included a few excerpts from it below:

The 40 hour/5 day work week is outdated. It was created 100 years ago as the most efficient way to run factories! I can honestly say Yarno is no factory - we’re a 21st-century company of knowledge workers. We have made a conscious decision not to create death by PowerPoint learning material. And we know that to create beautiful content that resonates with learners, we need to be working in a challenging and invigorating environment. 9am-5pm for 5 days a week is not that environment.

We want to produce great work. And we think one way to facilitate that is to have a reward at the end of every week - doing anything but work on Fridays.

Friday off is a reward to ourselves for a week well worked. It’s a chance for our brains to take a break. Mark and I both have young families, so we spend time with them, do life admin, exercise. Mainly we enjoy being outside an air-conditioned office (I think this is called “living”).

Inspiration

Back in 2016, young companies working a 4 day week were thin on the ground (coincidence or correlation!?).

There was one company though that stood out. The online learning platform Treehouse. They had implemented a 4 day week from the start, and in mid-2016 had 87 staff and $10M in revenue.

We were inspired! Here’s a company in the same industry as us, working a 4 day week and growing revenue and staff.

Success!

Or so we thought.

A few months later in September of 2016, we were saddened to read that Treehouse had returned to a five-day week, after laying off 22 employees. The CEO, Ryan Carson, felt it wasn’t fair to lay people off and continue to work four days.

In light of this, we reviewed the 4-day week with our team. Was it realistic? Were we insane to be even trying? Certainly there we met naysayers who told us that it definitely couldn’t be done.

The team debated these questions. Ultimately everyone was committed to trying to make it a success. They valued the day off, and so did their families. We persevered.

So, two years on, how did we do?

The best-laid plans…

Well, things didn’t go as planned right off the bat.

Despite our best intentions, Mark, Paul and I weren’t able to take Friday’s off. We were liaising with clients, taking any meetings we could. We were a startup, trying to find our feet. The day off felt like a luxury that we couldn’t afford.

In hindsight there’s a big difference between Friday’s off at a mature, established business, and Friday’s off at a fledgling startup. Even if I took the Friday off, my mind would stay switched on.

Inconsistency

We agreed from the start that it would only work if everyone had the Friday off.

At the start of this year, two of the team were successful in taking Friday’s off, and three of us were still working them.

I became concerned that this inconsistency could create resentment.

Which is ironic because the whole point of working 4 days was to energise and motivate the team. And unfortunately, despite our best intentions, I felt it had the opposite effect.

If I’m working on a Friday and need something from a Yarnoer who’s not working, it puts me in a bind. Sure, part of the agreement to work a 4-day week was always that everyone would be contactable on a Friday.

Yet the onus is on me to decide how often I should contact that Yarnoer. One or two calls is probably fine yet more than that and it becomes a quasi work/non-work day. Which is tough if they’re looking after kids or having a weekend away.

So what have we learned?

It feels as though we all gave it our best shot. We wanted it to work because we believe in the principles behind it. But we have to face the facts, that’s it not working as we thought it would.

So going forward we’re returning everyone to a five day week. Though we’re still committed to flexible working hours on those five days, working from home etc.

As Yarno matures, it’s certainly something I’d like to revisit. And I think a goal of reintroducing the 4 day week will motivate us all in the meantime!


Lachy Gray

Lachy heads up the Product team at Yarno. He's our resident rationalist and ideas man. He also reads way too many books for our liking.

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