No Work Wednesdays: This Company Loves The Four-Day Work Week
"Well, I just didn't want to work for assholes anymore.", is Kath Blackham’s blunt response when we ask why she started her own company. We're only 5 minutes into our conversation and we are already big fans of this woman.
As part of our Bucket List research we are here to learn about VERSA, the unique company she founded in 2010. While they have a lot of unusual characteristics, we are here to learn about the change that made global headlines—the 4-day work week.
Doing things differently
It’s a cold and rainy winter day as we walk through the lovely Richmond neighborhood in Melbourne. After a short search, we find the VERSA office and ring the bell. We are ready for yet another visit to a progressive workplace.
Once we enter, we immediately forget the cold and rain. We get a warm welcome and a tour of the office of this digital agency. The atmosphere is warm, friendly, and laid back. Then we sit down for some interviews. First up: founder and CEO, Kath Blackham.
VERSA was founded by Kath in 2010. They currently employ 55 people. Its purpose is "making people's lives better". They do this via web, mobile and platform development and voice technology. More than 50% of VERSA's customers are non-profits and government organizations. They regularly win awards for their innovative way of working.
The focus of our talk Kath is about the four-day work week. Since last year, VERSA’s employees still work a 37.5 hour week, but they squeeze their hours into four days. “I wanted to create an environment that made it difficult for our employees to do a 60-hour work week because it was too hard for them to fit it into four days.”
Adopting a 4-day work week
"I was walking behind two recent graduates who were talking to each other about their desire to work less. They talked about working just four days a week.", Kath describes. "When I overheard their conversation, it got me thinking."
After more thinking she realized this could really be something. Reducing the number of hours in an industry where working long hours is common practice would be good in many ways. First of all, for the employees: "It could potentially boost mental health, give staff more time for parenting, and allow for more entrepreneurship."
But it might just benefit the company too. How about more focused work? Maybe less absenteeism? Or more productivity?
"I was really convinced this would be better for us. Staff already had a huge amount of flexibility, but that meant everyone was working differently." It got so bad that staff couldn't get together because others were simply not around. "I wanted to give people flexibility, but allowing everyone to have their own hours didn’t work for us.”
Kath: "I got so excited that I pitched the idea to the rest of the leadership team. Their response was clear: "NO!". They were scared our revenues would drop dramatically."
The initial experiment
Kath didn’t take no for an answer. She pushed through and set up an experiment to test the idea. Three people were selected to take part. For three months, they worked four days each week, got paid for five, and squeezed their hours into four days. On Wednesdays, they would have the day off. The experiment would be evaluated on three aspects: billable hours, profit and revenues.
After three months, the human guinea pigs reported back. As their experiences were overwhelmingly positive, they decided to expand the experiment to the other employees. As of then, all staff reduced their work week to four days—at first, for a month.
Andrew Isaac (Creative Director) reflects on that period: "It was kind of hard in the beginning. Everyone had to find their own way to make it work. For example, I had to figure out how to put all my meetings into four days and still be productive. While that wasn't easy, it certainly helped me to work smarter. I feel it's the same for others, we all just work smarter."
After a successful first month, the experiment was extended for another three months. Then another six. Now, it has been over a year and the results are clear to Kath and her colleagues. "Profits have doubled, revenue has grown by 46%, and staff retention has gone from 77% to 88%. Plus, people are healthier, happier, and less likely to take sick days."
Kath is reluctant to give the experiment too much credit. "It's hard to say how much of it can be attributed to the four-day work week. But that it's a success is clear to us." And it's not just the numbers. The people we talked to seemed to be extremely happy with the change as well.
"We do this thing every morning where everyone stands up, rates their previous day, and shares what they're grateful for. On Thursday morning you feel a lot of extra gratefulness". Andrew describes. "Also, it helps us to make more use of each other's talents. On Thursday's we hear about all the cool stuff people have been doing on their day off. Some are setting up their own company, others follow courses, or spend time on their hobbies. We can use many of these skills internally as well."
And those who have been employed since the change are happy with the extra day of personal time. Web developer Jennifer Luong: "After having worked for other digital agencies before, I swore never to work for another one again. Agency life isn't good; hours are long and there's too much work. However, at VERSA it's different. On Wednesdays I have time to relax. I mostly spend it walking my dog on the beach. The work-life balance at VERSA is so much better. It feels like we have two weekends."
Happy staff, happy customers
Surprisingly, customers are happier too. Kath: "They deal with happier employees which makes them happier. Also, since employee retention is higher, they work mostly with the same people—which is great for them as well. Oh...and many organizations - especially non-profits and government - like to work with quirky companies, especially if they take good care of employees."
So, has it all been roses? No. They had some trouble with clients who didn't know about their unusual working schedule before their story hit the media. Plus, you can't always ignore the customer's schedule. If an important client can only come to our office on Wednesday, someone needs to step up. Kath: "But we push back as much as we can."
Rethinking today's workplaces
After we finish more interviews, we roam the office for a bit. Right before we leave we say goodbye to Kath. "I wanted to show that even in this industry, known for young people working super long hours, it can work."
"We’ll continue to work like this as long as it works for us. If not, we'll evaluate and find an alternative. It's all about radically rethinking today's workplaces."