My company tried the new model

  • Jo Burns-Russell’s agency participated in one of the largest four-day workweek trials for six months.
  • During the pilot, it went from 40 hours a week for five days to 32 for four days.
  • Burns-Russell shared how it worked — and why the agency chose a flexible 35-hour workweek.

As I said, this essay is based on a conversation with Jo Burns-Russell, the 41-year-old founder of the creative agency Amplitude from Northampton, England. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I founded Amplitude in 2008 after losing my event planning job. It is a creative agency that offers animation and film photography, graphic design, copywriting and branding for clients. We have a mix of clients – including Unilever, The Body Shop and Avon.

Now we have 12 employees including project managers, creative directors and graphic designers.

Before the trial, we had a 40-hour, 5-day work week

We had a bit of flexibility with tee times. People could work from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Other than that, it was pretty rigid.

We switched to hybrid working at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While most employees went back to the office after lockdown ended, this experience got me thinking about other ways we could give our employees more autonomy during their workweeks.

When I heard about the four-day week from my operations manager in April, it felt like a natural next step. We signed up for the test and started it in June.

I was nervous about client reactions to the study, but they supported me

The organization running the test in the UK, 4 Day Week Global, ran sessions to help us adapt our project management structure and workflow to the new system.

With that, we disassembled our entire workflow in the months leading up to the start of the study. The biggest change was communicating better with the client earlier in the creative process to ensure we wasted less time.

We allocate more client communication hours during the project and planning stages to ensure there are fewer changes from our clients by the time our creative team has created the work.

That was the point where we should make our work more efficient, because you can’t squeeze creativity out – it wouldn’t make our results good.

We arranged calls with our customers to tell them what we are doing. Transparency was important.

We have introduced a mandatory 32-hour week, giving employees the option to take Wednesday or Friday off.

The staff would work eight hours a day but only four days a week. We asked each person what works best for them. Some people wanted to use their day off for their own projects – they chose Wednesdays off, while others took Fridays off to extend their weekends.

I used my day off to work on my DJ side business – but sometimes had to work overtime

In my spare time I am a DJ and music producer. Wednesday was my day to be in my studio. I tried to be strict with it. I put my phone on silent and turned off my notifications.

But I occasionally had to work to respond to business development opportunities — for example, when we had a prospect and only had a few days to write an offer.

Handovers between absent employees caused some stress

When we started the trial, we changed our project management workflow. We had to make sure that there is a lead for each project that clients can access at any time, such as a creative director or a project manager.

When both the director and project manager had the same day off, we assigned someone else as a lead who answered customer inquiries that day. Everyone needed to have the days they worked in their email signature — and a note about who to contact when they were free. It was important that someone was there to respond to customers’ needs.

We have not lost any work and have fulfilled our services for customers. Business income hasn’t gone down, but it hasn’t gone up either.

But keeping everything running meant more people were working on multiple projects. It was a bit stressful for some. In the senior leadership team we were used to handing off work, but for the creative team it was more difficult to work across tasks.

I loved the work-life balance of the 4-day week, but wanted to make it more flexible

I have a chronic illness that causes neurological problems. I find the mornings incredibly difficult and prefer to start later in the morning.

I found the four-day week too prescriptive. I wanted to give employees autonomy because everyone works best in different ways.

When the study ended in December, we arranged one-to-one meetings with each employee to hear how they felt about the study and to discuss how they wanted to work. Everyone was different.

I need time for physiotherapy in the morning, but I’m often the last person in the office in the evening. One of my colleagues has three children. It is important to her to pick her up from school in the afternoon. Other people just like to have a day off and work four days a week.

It’s about giving people a choice

After consulting the team, we opted for a flexible 35-hour week over four or five days.

The trial ended in December, shortly after the UK economy collapsed. We chose not to go back to 40 hours per week, but I felt that we had to increase the staff’s weekly hours from 32 during the trial period to 35 because we knew our clients’ budgets were tight and we were with others Agencies had to compete on price. We didn’t want to lose a job.

Working a four-day week is still an option, but not mandatory. Employees must be available for meetings with clients and should start their day at 10am as we have our team meetings in the morning – that is unless they take that day off. Otherwise, the working hours are fully flexible – and our office is still hybrid.

An employee could work four days one week and try shorter hours the next five days – as long as managers know the week before.

The 9-to-5 mentality is old-fashioned. People work effectively in different ways.

Flexibility is a game changer. Creating this flexible work environment has made us better as a creative agency. It works fine for us. But we are a small organization. Our work pattern may not work for larger organizations, and we may need to be more dictate of employee hours as we grow.

The most important thing for me is to respect the autonomy of my team. It’s not up to me to tell them how to spend their days. There are deadlines and dates. That being said, people should be able to choose how they balance work with their personal lives.

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