Can you build a great company on a four-day work week? How to do more in fewer hours

When building a company from scratch, two questions will pop up pretty soon into the process: how hard you should work on the idea, and when you should do that work.

There’s a dawning realisation in the startup sphere that burnout is a real threat for entrepreneurs, and employees are incredibly eager to join businesses with a nimble approach to working hours, especially if this means dodging a five-day work week in favour of other arrangements.

When Australia’s ’50 best places to work’ were revealed last week, a majority of the businesses featured on this list cited a focus on flexibility and time management, with half of the companies that made the cut employing a “compressed work week”.

But despite the enthusiasm, entrepreneurs know progress will be hard to come by if you only work for a fraction of available business hours. So how can you trim your company’s schedule to fit the work you actually have to complete, without compromising on your health?

The two-way street

Staff at nail polish brand Kester Black all work a four-day week, but as founder Anna Ross told the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Mobile-ising Women in Business event in Melbourne in August, this approach to workplace culture involves a lot more than just the boss deciding how things will be run.

“Your staff have all the answers when you’re trying to change company culture,” Ross said, highlighting that from the office dog to the company’s hours of operation, her team has a say in how things will be run.

The plan doesn’t have to be fixed either; Kester Black’s schedule changed when Ross reviewed other options, for example. 

“Staff also said they wanted flexible working hours and we were working four days a week and taking off the Wednesday. I came back to it a couple of months later and said, ‘why are we taking off Wednesday? We should take off Friday’,” she says.

Head of workplace thinktank Reventure Lindsay McMillan says these kind of staff-inclusive plans can work, but only in cases where the engagement is genuine.

“This is all largely being driven by emerging generations that are saying, ‘my life is not just my work, it’s all my other interests’,” he says.

However, the challenge for businesses with a “startup culture” is the demands of the job might not be in line with a shorter work week or irregular hours.

“The counter point is companies are responding to the calls for flexibility as the best they can, but the overarching imperative is the job still needs to get done,” McMillan says.

This can result in the agreed upon system being betrayed, by either the employer, who piles on work when staff are supposed to be off the clock, or the worker, who can’t resist checking in even when they’re going over their allocated hours.

Companies that are able to find a good balance prioritise creating a culture of trust, as well as deciding on irregular or shorter work weeks, says McMillan.

“I think it’s around the question of what kind of culture we want to provide for our startups and at what cost, both [in terms of] what personal cost to the individual, and any costs to the startup,” McMillan says.


Conscious goal-setting

One high profile US startup with a focus on reduced hours is project management platform Basecamp, which allows employees to work a “Summer Work Week” of four eight-hour days between May and October each year.

In explaining how the policy works, however, chief executive Jason Fried outlines in a Medium post that it’s not as simple as everyone hitting the beach when the warmer weather hits.

New employees have to complete a training program before they can commence shorter hours, while scheduling has to be done each year to stagger days off so the team can still offer 24/7 customer support at the $US25 million company.

For the rest of the year, the company tries to remain conscious of not overdoing things beyond a 40-hour work week, unless there’s a special occasion that calls for overtime.

“I only make this point since our industry is perverted and often asks people for regular 60+ hour weeks + regular pushes on weekends,” Fried explains. 

Closer to home, founder of digital agency ntegrity Richenda Vermeulen wrote earlier this year about the value of committing to a 32-hour work week.

Speaking to SmartCompany, she says her current approach involves thinking of her available hours in terms of her overall strategy, instead of individual tasks.

“I start every day reviewing my big picture goals and use my ‘to-do list’ to ensure each action I take works toward them,” she says.

She also spends one fifth of her work week deciding how to tackle things, and four fifths actually getting things done.

“It keeps me to schedule, rhythmically doing all the things that are required rather than letting them side-swipe me, like board briefings, payroll, and team one-on-ones,” she says.

“It allows me to see what is strategic and non-strategic, and also gives me plenty of time to pre-schedule things that I don’t necessarily love doing but need to do as a business owner.”


Read the full article on the SmartCompany Web Site.