The allure of switching to a 4-day schedule, often referred to as a “compressed work week”. As employers compete ever-harder for talent, more office workers are using their leverage to create flexible or non-traditional schedules.
A handful of pioneering companies like Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services firm, even standardize on a 32-hour week without any reduction in pay. They point to a mounting body of research showing that many workers are able to deliver on a full workload in fewer hours by cutting down on low-value tasks and water cooler chit-chat.
Lovely as that is, it’s simply not available to the masses (yet 😉). For those of us who’d like more days off without taking a pay-cut, knocking out your 40 hours in fewer days is an enticing option. But it’s not a great fit for everyone. You’ll need to start with a little soul-searching, follow up with a persuasive proposal to your boss, and then work like you’ve never worked before – a combination of working smarter and working harder.
How do you know if a 3-day week is right for you?
This critical first step is partly about your job role, partly about who you are and your lifestyle. For starters, how do you plan to use the extra day off? For my colleague Lisa, a member of the finance team at Atlassian, the answer was easy: “More time with my kids before they started kindergarten. But now that they’re in school, it’s a day for ‘life admin tasks’ so I can fully enjoy Saturday and Sunday.” Or maybe your goal is to create space for travel, a passion project, or that side-hustle you’ve been pondering. That’s a good sign. Without a strong sense of purpose, it may be hard to muster the stamina required for working 10-hour days week in, week out.
Your job role matters, too. Customer service and similar queue-based roles can be tricky (though not impossible) to re-shape around a compressed schedule because service level agreements assume consistent staffing levels throughout the week. Similarly, a director or VP who touches practically every project in flight may find it difficult to shift to a 4-day week without becoming a bottleneck for the entire organization.
Then there are your personal commitments and lifestyle outside of the office. Will you still be able to juggle childcare pick-ups and drop-offs? Make it home in time for family dinner? Stay sane with fewer hours to recharge on your working days? You owe it to yourself to be brutally honest as you consider questions like these.
Truth be told, switching to a compressed schedule in concert with switching jobs is the most elegant way to do it if you’re 100% committed to the idea. Remember Lisa from the finance team? “I said upfront, I’m interested in this job, but I’m only going to do four days. So if that’s a deal-breaker, let’s not go any further. And they said ‘Ok, let’s keep going.’”
If you’re not looking to change jobs, strong relationships with your manager and your team are a must. Even if your manager agrees, without the moral and logistical support of your team, your chances of long-term success are slim. Pat Katepoo, founder of WorkOptions, advises clients that they should be in their role at least a year and perform at or above their manager’s expectations. Combined with a strong proposal, “roughly 9 out of 10 people who meet these criteria get approval to work a compressed work week,” she says.
Be careful not to sleep-walk through preparing that proposal. Show that you’ve really thought this through by laying out specifics for your manager to respond to:
- Which days you will work and between which hours
- Whether and how you can be reached on your off-day if there’s an emergency (also, what constitutes an “emergency” in your mind)
- How you envision shuffling and sharing responsibilities with your teammates
- How this change can have a positive impact on the team
That last point is important! Will you take fewer ad-hoc days off? Will it boost your focus, energy, and/or creativity? Will teammates have the opportunity to learn a new skill by sharing a responsibility that is now exclusively yours? Your proposal will be better received if it’s not all about you.
Another colleague, Jenny, a product manager, proposed switching as an experiment, which helped ease her manager’s concerns. “We did it on a trial basis and it went really well, so I was allowed to continue with it permanently,” she says. “For me, it’s totally worth it.”
Whatever you propose, send it in writing so your manager has time to give it some real thought. Approaching them with a verbal proposal puts them on the spot and will probably result in a knee-jerk “no”.
It actually means working smarter, not harder
In practice, pulling off a compressed work week means working smarter, and, yes, working harder – getting through those two extra hours isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ll need the right combination of prioritization, time management, and pacing.
Start by setting goals for yourself on a monthly or quarterly basis using OKRs or a similar method. Then, ruthlessly prioritize your planned work with those goals in mind, and be mindful of how many unplanned requests you say yes to. “I’ll stay off of Slack for periods of time while I’m working so I don’t get distracted by all the little shoulder-taps that come in,” Jenny tells me. Turns out, people usually find a solution on their own when she doesn’t respond immediately. (Bonus points for not being an “accidental diminisher”.) And when you say yes to a request, be clear about when you’ll deliver on it – this prevents the “just checking in…” pings.
Next, practice good calendar hygiene. You’ll probably need to move a meeting or two, so use this opportunity to stack your recurring meetings back-to-back as much as possible. This will open up space for long stretches of deep work. You may even want to block 90-120 minutes in the mornings or afternoons (depending on when you do your best thinking) so your deep work time isn’t fragmented by ad-hoc meetings.
Regardless of how you structure your daily schedule, be mindful of how much time you spend on casual chats, lunches, etc. You’re working the same number of hours as before, but that extra day off pulls your deadlines forward. “When I’m at work, I’m really just working,” says Lisa. “But I’m conscious of the social side of work and keeping up those relationships.It’s not like I’m so snowed under that I can’t even poke my head up for a chat or go for a coffee.”
Schedule in a review on a regular basis
Every few months, set aside some time during your 1-on-1 meeting with your manager to discuss how it’s going, especially at the outset. Listen with an open mind and try to mentally frame any issues they raise as challenges to overcome together, rather than indictments of your character or work ethic. If you’re the first person in your organization to try a compressed work week, there are bound to be some growing pains.
Self-reflection is important, too. Ask yourself whether you’re delivering work that is as good or better than before. Is the longer weekend worth the longer hours during the week? Are your social and family lives holding up alright?
If a compressed work week doesn’t turn out to be the schedule of your dreams, give yourself permission to honour that and go back to a standard schedule. Better to try, fail, and learn something than to never step out of your comfort zone.