How We Successfully Adopted the 4-Day Work Week at MailPoet

Illustration by Rodrigo Fortes

We implemented the 4-day work week at MailPoet in 2016. Three years on, we’re still working happily with this rhythm and our business is growing.

While Tim Ferris’ 4-hour work week proved to be something of an illusion, 32 hours seemed more like a reasonable goal. We even considered a 6-hour work day at one point, but that seemed more of a constraint than a shorter week.

These days, the idea of having more free time is gaining traction in the press because:

  • Over 90% of people are stressed at work, with a third on the verge of a burnout, possibly due to Workism, the religion of working hard.
  • New technologies have made employees more productive, but also more available at all times.
  • The pace of work is accelerating because the purchasing power is stalling.
  • Millennials and Gen Z will probably work until they’re 70.
  • Of the top 5 regrets of the dying, the number 2 is “having worked too hard.
  • It’s not a coincidence that yoga has grown to a $27 billion industry in the U.S. alone, not to mention the explosion of mindful apps like Headspace.
  • HR directors are now renamed Chief Happiness Officers, and they now sit on the board and/or report back directly to the CEO like other VPs. Why is that?

The proposition to work less but more effectively is quite evident at face value. Many smaller businesses are trying it, even governments are doing it.

But what about the loss in productivity? Is there really a loss? If so, at what cost? These are the questions you should try to answer yourself before proposing longer weekends to your manager and colleagues.

In this post, we’ll cover how we adopted the 4-day work week at MailPoet in the hopes you, too, can emulate what we’ve done, even if it’s just for a trial period:

Our Company’s Working Culture

To understand the context of this article, you first need to understand who we are and how we work.

We’re a software company of 13 remote staff building a single product (we’re like a Mailchimp, but working in WordPress).

Our team is mostly composed of engineers, but includes other roles such as support, quality assurance and product management.

The team rarely depends on a single person for decision making. This horizontal hierarchy allows everyone to participate in or at least question decisions.

Our work cycles are not calendar driven. Our product is released weekly with whatever is ready to be shipped in any given week.

We don’t promise our users features on specific dates. We don’t rely on a few large clients to keep us afloat. In other words, we’re never pressured by time or a single customer, but only by the quality that we want to deliver.

There are only 2 types of internal meetings we run in order to save everyone’s precious time:

  1. A meeting to set quarterly objectives together for our product, known as Objective & Key Results (OKR)
  2. One-on-ones meetings between managers and staff. We’re in a remote environment, so we need to artificially create a space to talk.

We offer mandatory 5 weeks of vacation per year where we ask employees to completely disconnect.

Finally, we’ve adopted a radically transparent culture, inspired by Buffer. Our chat exchanges, compensations and business revenues are internally available to everyone.

The Benefits to Staff of a Shorter Work Week

Flexibility tops it all. We usually take Fridays off, but it can be any other day of the week.

This allows our colleagues to organize their personal lives as they please, such as dentist appointments, grocery shopping or deal with last minute emergencies. This gain is obvious for parents, but it holds true for everyone because no one feels guilty leaving their desk for a few hours anymore.

Since your life’s admin can be accomplished during the week, the weekends become what they were meant to be: a time to kick back and relax for a full 2 days.

There are other uses for the extra day off. Some of us will work partly on Fridays just because it’s a very quiet day at the office. This provides a time free of distractions to get longer tasks done, or just to peruse the web or research.

Another example comes from our colleague Rodrigo who often plans a day where there’s absolutely nothing planned. It’s mind-boggling to wake up with no mission for your day, isn’t it?

Finally, you can use the extra day as a credit for the following week as long as it’s not repetitive. For example, you work 5 days this week, and just 3 the following. Useful for travelling or moving.

Benefits of a Shorter Work Week for the Company

The most obvious advantage is overall happiness. We see it in the results of our anonymous annual employee survey, in case we needed definitive proof.

We have a lot less sick people, no one is stressed for long and unhealthy periods of time. No one has burned out.

On Mondays, people come in fresh and with clear minds. It’s a great recipe for enabling people to think “outside the box.”

As for the HR manager or the owner of the business, a lot less time is spent tracking everyone’s calendar — simply trust colleagues to manage their time, stop counting their hours, and focus on outcomes instead. They’re adults, not children.

Hiring new colleagues and employee retention have been definitely easier for us as well. Workers in the tech sector are very mobile: tech workers turnover more than any others to get either get a raise or for new career opportunities.

For as long as few other companies offer the absolute perk of a longer weekend, we have a definite edge over other firms.

Another worthy mention is that the 4-day work week might help bridge the gender parity gap. Something worth considering if you see diversity as a business advantage (you should).   

Measuring Loss (or Gain) of Productivity

We’re not sure if we’re more productive before or after the 4-day work week, sorry. We winged our experiment in a non-academic fashion.

Many others, though, including Jason Fried as far back as 2012, report that they’re even more productive with shorter weeks.

At MailPoet, we measure productivity, and then we don’t. We use tools to measure the team’s output rather than sheets to measure hours. But it’s not an obsession either.

Since we have less time to work in a single week, we are laser-focused instead about speeding up what slows us down. Moreover, we’re quite intent on removing stress factors in the workplace by changing methods and processes. These introspections are now part of our fabric.

I certainly don’t worry about individual productivity, unless there’s an obvious reason to do so. In any case, it’s the norm in our cultures to be obsessed with productivity, so I let my colleagues worry individually.

It’s important to look back at the history of the workplace since the Industrial Revolution and to realize this: we’ve never been this productive. We’ve stretched the limits of employees’ output thanks to technology. And it’s only accelerating.

A side effect of the Information Revolution has come in the form of constant distractions. Think of news, social media, chats and emails.

We took 2 approaches to productivity with the above points in mind:

  • Limit distractions, and
  • Measure productivity at the team level.

MailPoet enforces an asynchronous policy to communication (we use chat) in our remote office. You can write to your colleagues, but don’t expect an answer immediately. Project leaders are exempt from this rule in order to ensure no one is blocked by an unanswered question.

We also adopted the new paradigm of the workplace: design your workplace around teams, and not hierarchies or individuals.

Each team owns its own metrics of performance. For example, developers at MailPoet measure their own performance thanks to a specific tool, which gamifies their work unwittingly. Our help desk looks at average answer times and customer happiness.

The teams set themselves OKRs for each quarter. There are no individual goals. Instead, we set the stage for individuals to be a part of a team that wins together.

In this type of organization, the company’s leadership should be servant, helping teams succeed at their mission and avoid top down decisions, e.g. “do as I say.”

The Caveats of a Shorter Work Week

It’s a happy workplace that creates a successful business outcome, not the other way around.

The 4-day work week is just one of these aspects by which colleagues value their jobs:

  1. Salary
  2. Conditions (4-day work week)
  3. Relationships with colleagues
  4. Career opportunities
  5. Responsabilities
  6. Learning
  7. Values
  8. Mission

Each person evaluates the above differently. Young single people at the start of their careers have different priorities than more experienced workers who might be parents. It’s important to put the 4-day work week in the context of other points and not bank on the shorter week to minimize your high turnover rate.

Moreover, certain roles aren’t adapted to the 4-day work week. For example, our support team still works 5 days per week. We never hired more help desk staff to remove the double standard because we have other financial priorities. This will pain me until we get everyone on the 4-day work week.

Another example are team leaders. They need to be a step ahead of everyone to ensure proper coordination and a smooth operation. This puts an additional pressure on them that might require them to work a little more. Keep this in mind if you decide to switch to a 4-day work week.

Another issue is that some workers might take up gigs to earn more money on the side thanks to their new found free time. This is more evident with Millenials and Gen Z growing up in the gig economy. To offset this, our contracts specify that having another part-time job is out of the question. If you want to totally win them over, offer competitive salaries in the first place.

Summary

The 4-day work week is great for us at MailPoet because it means:

  1. Happier employees,
  2. A less stressed environment,
  3. A smarter workforce focused on efficiency,
  4. It’s easier to hire and retain staff, and
  5. You can die happily knowing you’ve done things in life other than work.

The shorter week can get sketchy if:

  1. Your workplace isn’t putting the effort into overall individual happiness;
  2. If the salaries are weak, your colleagues will take up side gigs; and
  3. You might need to hire more coworkers for certain types of roles, like customer-facing people.

In the past few years, I have never had a chance to exchange on this topic with another company like ours, unfortunately. This has been a lone experiment in our corner.

Sometimes, I do wonder if we would be reaching our goals faster if we had a 5-day work week. But I don’t dwell on it too much. I pinch myself to remind me that retention is much cheaper and stress-free than hiring.

Feel free to ask us anything in the comments below!