Viewpoints: The Four-Day Work Week #3

Viewpoints 2020

24th May 2020
by Noelle Cooper

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I was initially unsure about sharing my opinion on a shorter working week because it is not something that we, as a studio, have considered implementing or even openly discussed. It feels all the more strange talking about it in the context of the uncertain and confusing situation the world is currently experiencing. What is a working week now? Is anyone working ‘a week’ anymore? Will it return? Who decided it should be 40 hours in the first place?

A 5-day week certainly didn’t define us in the early days. At times we were more likely to work 6 or 7 days a week. The idea of a weekend at all seemed like a luxury. Colin and I set up Unthink driven by the shared aspiration to direct our own projects, free from preconceived ideas, and rooted in a mutual enthusiasm for visual communication. Somewhere, towards the last few pages of a business plan (that never existed) was the notion that we might also gain control of our lives. That turned out to be an absurd idea and the complete opposite was true — running a design business and having time for life never matched up for us. But it wasn’t a concern: we surrendered whole-heartedly and happily to a life of design servitude.

With that in mind, it seems fanciful now to think we could potentially change something that is so entrenched as the 5-day week. It feels a little contradictory and maybe even ill-informed to toy with the idea. How would we get everything done?

That’s not to say I wouldn’t jump at the chance of more time off, but as a business owner, I need to be cautious and mindful of the potential impact it would have on our practice. Is the key to this argument shifting workplace culture from one of hours to one of deliverables? Would we be more focused and efficient on weekly/daily tasks if we knew we only had 4 days to get everything done? 40 hours a week is unlikely to equate to 40 hours of creativity and productivity. Does productivity increase when working hours are reduced? Time spent scrolling, reading irrelevant emails, procrastinating on social media, etc. could be reduced. Conversely, we don’t want to condense 40 hours into 4 days either.

From the outset it would be critical to have clear goals for what we want to accomplish within a shorter working week. We would need to make adjustments to organisational practices and behaviours, revisit how we collaborate and communicate and redefine what productivity and commitment looks like.

Our main concern is whether the studio could still be productive and profitable. We would need to consider the impact of a shorter working week on our client relationships and our ability to deliver and manage their expectations around responsiveness, which is vitally important. If you break it down into euros and cents it will likely cost more per hour, but the intangible benefits could be priceless.

While we don’t have a huge staff turnover, we can see how it might be viewed positively by potential employees. For larger studios, a 4-day week would undoubtedly distinguish their company and signify a more progressive culture. An environment where a designer’s wellbeing is as valued as their skills, would be a more desirable place to work. It might also broaden the pool of potential employees, enabling people with family or other commitments to rejoin the workforce.

In recent times, the need for a physical studio space is certainly debatable, especially with the current restrictions on movement and human interaction. The entire world is adapting to working-from-home, prompting us to ask whether a physical studio is necessary at all.

Our experience of working remotely is that it is never quite as smooth as having people onsite. Exposure to studio culture and having strong connections with the team and ongoing projects enriches a designer’s output. As a small studio, we thrive on the daily interactions and shared experiences we have with our team which is a really important aspect of how we work. I’m realising how much I miss those real-life human connections. They stimulate our brain, feed our ideas and inspiration, spark our enthusiasm and fuel our creative energy.

For us, the desire to shorten the working week comes from the desire to foster creative energy and take care of our people. We want to work better so we can spend more time enjoying life and engaging with the things that make life valuable. I’m at a point in my life where I realise I can’t buy time, I can’t get back the time that I’ve devoted to my career, and I’ve come to appreciate that it’s not about productivity and profit, it’s about people and time. Why can’t we have the time to do the things that matter at work and at home? Health and wellbeing should come first and the results should be positive for the business too. It goes without saying that when we’re healthy and enjoying our lives, we perform better.

The process of writing about this, albeit brief, has prompted me to change the lens through which I view this subject. It is a bit of a no brainer – we don’t necessarily need to work 40 hours per week to be successful. Working fewer hours can make us more focused, efficient and better at our jobs. We need to work smarter and harder, not longer. Work is changing, and it seems like now is a good time to explore how things might be done differently.

The Dutch author Rutger Bregman articulated it much better than I could… The solution to (nearly) everything: working less.

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