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21 Min Read

The Keys to Making the Four-Day Workweek Work

Shane Metcalf, CPO of 15Five

The four-day workweek has been getting a ton of press lately, likely in response to a demand for this working model following the pandemic and the “Great Resignation“. That’s why I was really excited to invite Jennifer Christie back onto the show to talk about how they’re making the four day work week work at Bolt, where she served as Chief People Officer. She shared that 80% of employees communicate that it makes them more productive and dispels the myth that scares many leaders away from where the workplace may be heading in the next few years.

As Chief People Officer at 15Five, I’m always looking for leading edge practices and benefits, like paid sabbaticals, free unlimited therapy, and marriage counseling for employees. I’ve long been fascinated with the potential of the four-day workweek, but it’s always been one of those high risk, high reward kind of things that hasn’t quite felt right to implement…yet!

In this episode of the HR Superstars Podcast, we explore the question, Can you really be successful as an organization when you lose a full day of work? In high school, I actually had a four day school week, and it was an amazing experience. I had a deep love of learning and I was also able to have a full and rich life outside of my academic studies that fostered a lifelong love of learning.

That’s also given me some solid talking points for me to go to my leadership team and my board and continue advocating for something so radical, but so appropriate for the time we’re in. Let’s drop into the conversation with Jennifer…

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and concision:

Shane: So Jennifer a lot has changed since the last time we talked to you, you left Twitter and there are many ways that you’re pushing the envelope from a people and culture perspective. A couple of the big headlines that maybe some of our listeners have read is that Bolt is the first large tech company to launch a four-day workweek. And that is one of the areas that I think is so interesting and innovative. What inspired the four-day workweek and how is it going?

Jennifer: What inspired it was really two drivers. One was that a lot of people across industries and companies over the last few years have struggled a little bit with feeling as productive as they really want to be or need to be with switching between in-office, remote, and very distributed teams.

So I think it was one thing that has been top of mind in terms of how do we make sure that our people feel productive, but also addressing burnout, which is another thing that a lot of people have not really understood when and how to turn off and people being overloaded with meetings and things like that.

So we’re trying to address both burnout and productivity with Ryan Breslow, former CEO now executive director of the board. I was reading an article actually about the four-day workweek and a light bulb went off. And he said maybe this is something that could address both productivity and burnout. Let’s try it!

Instead of piloting in subsections of our org, we just did a full pilot for three months at the end of 2021 where everybody took part in trying to change the way they work into those four days. We didn’t try to cram five days into four, that definitely would not have had addressed productivity or burnout. What we said is be ruthless about what you’re working on in terms of prioritization, cut out all the stuff that is not impactful work, talk to your manager and make sure that they know what you’re working on, and it can help you slash and burn across your to-do list.

And then also look at your meetings and we gave everybody permission to say, “You know what, I’m not going to attend that meeting anymore”, “We don’t need to have that meeting or we can do it asynchronously. It’s just an update.” So we try to really focus people on doing less and better and more focused work to accomplish a four-day workweek.

Shane: I think that the five day work week is almost an autopilot mode of operating. Okay. It’s Monday and I’m just gonna work till it’s Friday. And then I get the weekend and I’m not gonna really take full ownership that I am trying to drive and it’s up to me to determine how and where, and when I work to meet outcomes.

Have you seen people really change their schedules? How did that encouragement to challenge their meeting cadences and what meetings they were attending? How has that?

Jennifer: We did a survey at the end of our pilot because honestly we were testing it. We weren’t saying we’re definitely going to do this as figure out how.

Shane: It was a three month test. Is that right? How did you set the expectations on that test? Because a lot of people would be like, “Yeah, we’re getting a four-day workweek!”But then it might be really painful if you said, you know what? We decided that we’re going to go back because it didn’t work.

How did you set that expectation?

Jennifer: Up front we said we don’t know if this is going to work or not. This could make things worse. This could make things better. There’s some skeptics of like, how are we going to get things done and all of that. So what we said is we don’t know what we don’t know.

We could sit around in a room and try to think of every scenario and draft policies or we could just start running water through the pipes and see what leaks and where there’s blockage. And so we could kind of figure out the best way to do this. We informed people that we’re going to do a survey and ask at the end of this pilot, should we continue this or not? And we really want your feedback.

94% of employees wanted to keep it, and 91% of our managers wanted to keep it. We had 80% of our employees respond to the survey and 80% of those who responded said that they were able to significantly reduce meetings. So it did have an impact on that, because again, we gave everyone permission to have that conversation with other meeting attendees, versus one or two people trying to adjust their calendar.

It was a language and an effort that we asked everyone to do. So it really had that impact. 84% of the folks said that they were able to have better work-life balance. 86% of the people said that they were more productive than they had been prior to it.

We that great feedback, we decided to implement it full time and start having this be the way we work. Some of the challenges rose through the feedback as well like with our external facing organizations. Sales and, and some of our teams that maybe don’t control their calendar as much and…

Shane: Customers don’t exactly all adopt the four-day workweek and say, “You know what, you’re not working Friday, I’m not going to work Friday either.”

Jennifer: Exactly, exactly. And we certainly, weren’t saying that people are going to say out of office, like I’m not going to respond to my customers on Fridays. So we had to work with our customer’s teams and those, those external facing teams on, sometimes shifting their schedule. So maybe they worked on a Friday. Maybe they’d take the Monday off and we still try to keep the spirit of giving them that extra time to unwind and recharge. They just had to be a little bit more flexible.

Shane: So I’m curious, are you seeing a change in the creativity, in the engagement and the productivity?How is the culture feeling of people getting a lot more time for life?

Jennifer: It’s really jarring to change our culture in that people really feel like they want to balance both sides of their life. They work really hard, those whore days, and people are willing to go the extra mile and do whatever it takes, you know?

Cause they’ll say, “Hey, listen, I know this is might be a late meeting for you, but can we just do this meeting on Wednesday night so we can all have that Friday off.” People were willing to do it and still felt that they really accomplished a lot and had an impact.

Shane: Does this change some of the talent profile that you’re looking for and connect the dots here? I don’t know if you’ve read Frank Slootman, his book, Amp It Up. Frank, the CEO of Snowflake, is a really interesting thinker and business leader. And he has a chapter in his book about hiring Drivers, not Passengers.

He says Passengers are people who don’t mind simply being carried along by the company’s momentum offering little or no input. Seemingly not caring about the direction chosen by management, often pleasant get along with everyone, attend meetings promptly, and aren’t troublemakers.

Passengers are largely dead weight and can be an insidious threat to your culture and performance. They inadvertently undermine the mojo of an organization. They sap the animal instinct and spirits you need in business to thrive. And then he describes Drivers, who are the antithesis of that. People that are actually taking ownership.

Drivers are not going to just exploit the four-day workweek. But really actually see this as an opportunity to increase productivity, increase innovation and creativity. Does the four-day work week change the profile of who you are looking to hire?

Jennifer: I don’t think it changes it, but it makes us much more intentional about it.

So for example, we talk about conscious culture. That’s something that, that we are driving through in our playbooks. Conscious culture doesn’t mean a soft culture. It doesn’t mean a culture of people who are passengers at all. It actually does mean we want people to hear three things: 1) Have a real drive to win, 2) are really good at what they do, and 3) are willing to do anything they can to get the job done. They see something that’s broken, they go fix it.

They aren’t like, not my problem, you know? They have that real passion to just go for it. And so we expect a lot from our folks and it’s not an easy thing to be part of a company that’s growing as fast as we are in a field that’s as competitive as it is.

And so we actually do want Drivers and what we say in return for that, we’re going to give you a lot of latitude and freedom to get the work done and the way that works best for you. We’re going to give you a lot of freedom in terms of your schedule and giving time back to you to recharge.

We trust that you’re going to take that freedom and latitude and use it in the right way. And we trust that when you’re working for us and when you’re on, you’re going to be full on like sprinting, sprinting out all those goals. So we definitely don’t want people to come in to rest and vest. We’re not trying to put out a thing of like, this is the cushy company.

Shane: It’s only four days a week and you get to slack off and barely put it in.

Jennifer: No, it’s definitely not that. And it’s interesting. Our job applicants have gone up 30% month over month since we launched this. I do think a lot of people are attracted to it, but we have to be careful why they’re attracted to it and kind of suss out in those interviews if they’re coming here because they want a place where they can work less because that’s not us.

Shane: So my high school actually had a four day school-week. All four years of my high school we had three-day weekends. And what was remarkable about this as I think back on that, and not only did it inspire a much deeper love of learning of a very positive association with high school, which not many people have. It also allowed for a more dynamic life outside of school to do extracurricular activities and a lot of other exploration of topics that were intrinsically motivating and fascinating to me.

Honestly, I feel like that’s part of my journey of actually becoming an entrepreneur is that I had more of that freedom and autonomy to really think about, well, what do I want to do with three days? And I’m curious, do you feel like it is fostering a more entrepreneurial culture where, where people are looking at outcomes versus output?

Because output is just butts in seats, five days a week. We must be productive and we’re not even measuring the outcomes. Is there more attention on the outcomes that the company is producing versus just being busy at work?

Jennifer: One of our operating values is, Think like a founder, operate like a founder. Ryan talks about the theater of work. It’s not merely showing up in all the meetings? Busy-ness and how many things they attend and participate in, but what are they really adding value in? So we flip that and we say listen, even if you’re attending less, if you’re doing more work, asynchronously writing over talking is also one of our values, you know?

So this also helps people get out of that meeting frenzy and focusing on deep thinking and getting things done in a way that gets them out of this checkbox mentality of busy-ness and they’re exhausted because they were on Zoom meetings all day, but what did I really do? We want people to focus on impact and really talk to their managers, and we give managers guidelines on, look at what your folks are doing.

And if there’s things that they’re working on that don’t matter, don’t have them working on those things. Even if it means that what they’re working on is just two or three high-impact things you don’t have to feel like that’s not enough, two or three high-impact things that they just obsess over is enough.

If that’s the value and impact that they can bring. So, I think it’s definitely fostering more creativity. It’s giving people more time to have ideas. And sometimes on Fridays, people are just connecting with their colleagues and building relationships, but it’s having those kinds of serendipitous ad hoc conversations to where people can just have ideas batting around and, and just being free to think without it being so structured or an agenda associated.

Shane: How is it for you personally? You’re a seasoned HR pro and been doing the five day work week, probably your whole career. How is it to go to that different model?

Jennifer: I have been a five day or six day a work person for most of my career. I’ll be honest if those first few Fridays or maybe the first month and Fridays that I felt guilty. I felt like I was playing hooky and felt like I had justify if I was at lunch or, or taking a walk or doing something that’s not at work. We’ve got a four-day workweek. I felt like I had to explain myself, but it’s a mindset shift.

And it’s a muscle that people, if you’ve done something for that long, it’s just hard to shift. But it’s funny because when I was at Twitter, we started moving towards remote work and distributed work long before the pandemic. That was something that we saw as our future and something that would help us build sustainability and durability as a company, because we thought that was the way the future was going.

Having conversations with other companies before COVID about remote work. Oh, my team could never do that. How did, how do you have you have a culture of your organization without people being in the same room? And so all of those naysayers and managers saying I couldn’t do it. And lo and behold, something happened that was a forcing function and people figured it out and it wasn’t without some pain, but it really has shifted people’s ability to work in so many different ways.

And now a lot of people want to continue to work like this who never would have. And so I think about that in the same way. I think about the four-day workweek. When people say like that wouldn’t work for my company, I remind them about remote work.

I would argue that it’s an easier change than going for like a fully office driven company to fully remote. I think those challenges are harder than shifting your schedules in this way, but people have a hard time with change.

Shane: It’s interesting, me and my co-founder David, I think it was six years ago, we were at a festival together and I was like, David, we should do a four-day work week. We had so much excitement around it, but then we backed off. It was too scary, our leadership team or the board said, Whoa, whoa, hold on! We’ve got really big stakes this quarter!

This is a really important year for us. Really big growth targets, right. You know, hypergrowth, VC backed startup. And it’s interesting because we keep coming to that edge and looking over and it’s like, oh no, too scary. Not yet!

At times I’ve felt that one of the purposes in life is to implement the four-day workweek, because I think that one of our values, one of my hopes for the professional world is that we not only get to have extraordinary careers, but we also have get to have extraordinary lives. Working five days a week for the entirety of our adult lives is challenging to cultivate more interests outside of.

Jennifer: Absolutely. And I would also say that by really focusing on the things that matter most and are most impactful and cutting out all the, just useless performative type of stuff that people do at work, you can look back on your career and be more proud of it, even, you know, of all the things you’ve been able to attend.

One of the challenges that we’ve had this year, we had three Mondays that were holidays in the US— New Year’s day, January 3rd was off that first week. And we had that Friday off as our four-day workweek and then Martin Luther King Day and President’s Day.

So upfront in the beginning of the year, we had these three-day workweeks. A lot of people’s heads exploded. They thought let’s just have those holidays be the day off and we still have a four-day workweek. And I pushed back strongly that we’re going to do this. During the five-day work week, if you had a Monday off you, weren’t asking people to work on a Saturday. So if we’re going to truly look at this as a four-day workweek, that’s going to be the shift. When there’s a holiday, then you do things in three days during those times.

But because there were three right up front, I definitely heard some feedback from managers like, wait a minute, these three day work weeks are really hard to. And what I said was, listen, a couple of things. 1) Just even be more ruthless about what you do in those three days. Use this as an even bigger forcing function to take another look at your calendar. Are you really needing to have those meetings and other things? If your team needs to get stuff done on a Friday, that there’s no law that says they can’t. But it is something to let them have individual choice about it.

If they want to get stuff done on a Friday when they have a short week like that, there’s no rule against it, but they shouldn’t impinge on another person’s right, if you will, to our ability to take that forward.

Shane: Has this changed behavior around PTO around paid time off, around taking vacations?

That same sense of, oh, I, I feel a little guilty at first. Have you seen any impact that people were confused now. Is it still okay for me to take a two week vacation?

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s a great question because it was one of the first things I flagged as a concern because I worried that people will say, well, I get every Friday off. I probably shouldn’t take a week off.

And what we’ve been very specific in talking about that internally to say no, go ahead and put your time in and plan those vacations. Every Friday off is meant to be something that’s just part of your regular schedule that you do on a recurring basis, but it’s not meant to take the place of an actual vacation and stepping away. So we’re monitoring that. We’re going to be monitoring it. We continue to have those messages…

Our investors know that we have very big goals that we’re running after. And I think as long as we keep hitting those marks and keep growing and doing the things that we said that we were going to do when they invested with us, I think they’re also going to give us that latitude and freedom to manage how we need to manage. If those things start falling off, then we’ll have, we’ll have to answer for it. But so far, We’re in a good place there.

One issue that arose is that we have a handful of hourly employees, and we couldn’t say work eight hours, but book ten so we can pay you. You’re not allowed to do that, obviously, that kind of stuff. So what we did was we said, keep your same hours, but we’re going to pay you more per hour. So you get paid the same for working for four days, but you don’t have to increase your hours. And if you do have to work overtime, obviously we’ll pay you overtime. So we were able to do that and it’s manageable for us because it’s a smaller portion of our population.

But other CHROs have reached out to me that they’d love to do this but have a huge hourly population. What I say to them is that if you can’t follow the exact way we’re doing it. Try to follow the spirit of it. Look at what you’re doing as a company that is inhibiting productivity for your people and find ways to make sure that they have more time to step away and recharge.

And so it may not be every Friday. It may be at some kind of different cadence. Don’t just start from the get-go like you can’t do it. At least pilot it, or at least pilot in some part of your work and see what you can come up with. And I don’t know any company that can’t do better with their meetings.

Shane: People love paying attention to the flashy headline of the four-day workweek, but it really seems they are missing the point. Look at the supporting beliefs and operating systems underneath that allow this to work—Drivers, people that really want to win, outcomes over output, talent density, these high bars, these high expectations.

Those kinds of beliefs and operating principles need to be in place for this to actually work. If you went into a company that was already dysfunctional and had Passengers instead of Drivers and you implemented a four day workweek, that would probably fail miserably and then everybody would blame it on the four-day workweek, rather than the lackadaisical culture that was underneath.

Jennifer: Exactly, and it’s interesting, I know you’ve heard a lot of this when companies that were more office-based went fully remote over the last few years, you heard a lot of them really getting nervous about culture. And they said, you know, going remote, it’s going to kill the culture.

What I would say back is, is if you are intentional about driving your culture, if you know what your culture is, if you hire for it, if you embed it in everything you do. Going remote isn’t it going to affect that at all. And neither will the four-day workweek.