Four day work weeks, balanced life

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, April 15, 2008, 4:43 PM | comments: 13

This is a great post from 37signals on work hours. The comments are just as interesting as the post. There are still a lot of places that would flatly reject any notion of flexible time or shorter work weeks, and that's a bummer.

I suspect I'd be much happier in a four-day week, and in fact I'd even take a pay cut to have it. From the work end, yeah, I'm only productive 25-30 hours at most per week. From the life side, having an extra day a week for me makes me far more likely to clean the house, read, buy groceries or otherwise function in the context of my life in ways I don't currently. I know this from my consulting days, where I never scheduled stuff one day a week, and felt immensely better for it. I lost weight, got my head together and generally felt better despite the difficulty I was having at the time with the separation.

What I find even more unfortunate is all of the people who simply adhere to the way things are with total acceptance. The industrial revolution ended a long time ago. We're not a nation of worker bees on an assembly line, and we become more and more self-aware about what life is supposed to be about. The problem is that the culture is driven by a minority who can't get up to the roof (in the "follow your bliss" Blue Man sense), and we can get stuck working for those people. I've met countless people who do what I do that find it staggering that I don't work 50 hours a week.


Neuski, April 15, 2008, 8:47 PM #

I loved reading person after person propose a situation where a strict schedule would be "required" and get shot down.

Jeff, April 15, 2008, 9:26 PM #

Yeah... everything in life is negotiable. The "real world" is what you make it.

Eric, April 16, 2008, 3:10 AM #

I worked a four day week for about 18 months. The one part people sometimes forget is that a four day work week does not mean everyone gets a three day weekend.

I moved to a work week where I worked four nine hour days and went home at noon on Friday. It worked out well, because I rarely worked less than nine a day anyways.

Now I try to make Fridays light, but not always.

Jeff, April 16, 2008, 4:27 AM #

Why doesn't everyone get a three day weekend? It seems to me that if you make it so, then that's exactly what it is.

JRY13SP, April 16, 2008, 12:53 PM #

I work Sunday-Wednesday now, so I have a 3 day weekend every week. It's one of the things that makes it worth working nights. If I get moved to dayshift, it will be M-F 8-5.

Carrie, April 16, 2008, 2:50 PM #

I think the fallacy of this perspective, though, is that it is a one size fits all kind of arrangement. I think that this company was able to assess the business they are in, what goals they have, the talent they have on staff and the standards they have for hiring in the future, and were able to make this system work is great for them. But to jump on a soap box that would suggest that it works for everyone is not exactly appropriate.

For example, do you know how much our entire culture would have to change for something like this to work across the board? Our society expects 24-hour access/service in just about every industry, especially customer service. Could we really deal with the fact that stores aren't open on the weekends? How about the next time you go to check in to the hotel for vacation and your room isn't ready because the staff was pacing themselves?

You could argue that 24 hour service is still possible by shifting your staff hours (M- Th, Th - Sun, etc), but you would still need to hire more people to cover the week and more people means more cost in benefits and such.

And there really are industries for which the deadlines are calendar driven, not customer or employer driven. What do those folks do?

I just get irritated when someone finds an idea that works for them and then arrogantly touts it off as the obvious solution for all. It has nothing to do with "real world" thinking. It has to do with the monster we have created in our expectations for goods and services. And in a competitive market, unless you get all players to change their rules of engagement, then you really may not be able to afford this kind of mentality. And as I said, there are industries that have deadlines that can not be moved.

Jeff, April 16, 2008, 3:13 PM #

But there isn't a fallacy there. They aren't suggesting it's a one-size deal, but rather you adjust it to what makes the most sense.

And as they indicate, they do stagger their hours and there's always someone "on duty" so to speak.

Deadlines are never calendar driven. Deadlines are a negotiated contract that the parties may choose to make calendar driven. Sure, I see what you're getting at in your job, when there are things going on around an academic year, for example, but it's still an example of backward process. A new scholarship program, for example, should not be scheduled to begin on a date and then develop the system around it to facilitate it. The system should be developed and at some point during that time it should be determined that the program can proceed based on that progress. I've seen that shift in approach at two companies, and the resulting product was far higher quality.

I do understand the perception of arrogance on the part of 37signals. They get that a lot. However, you're going down exactly the path they point out in the comments. Expectations are not assumed, they're set. People pleasers are everywhere, and they set expectations that can't be met. They never say, "Yeah, that may take longer than you'd like," and they never say no.

Competition in relation to speed of delivery is a cop out, I think. Speed comes at the expense of quality, almost universally. You can't compete on reduced quality.

Carrie, April 16, 2008, 8:23 PM #

Deadlines can indeed be calendar driven.

"The system should be developed and at some point during that time it should be determined that the program can proceed based on that progress."

That's a luxury that folks in the private sector may have, but not so much in the public and government sectors. Do you have any idea how many factors went into developing the time lines for our project? The issue being that the minute the project was decided upon, the dollars started rolling. And who was paying those costs? The Universities (our first level of customers.) Where did the money come from that the Universities started paying? In majority part, from the students (our second level of customers.) The part of the money that came from the government you could argue came at the taxpayers expense (our third level of customers.)

It would not be appropriate for us to say we will get things started, see how long it may take, and then give you our time lines without accountability. Because you have to keep in mind that given operations are on an academic calendar you only have so many windows for a cut-over. If you miss one, it could be 6 months to a year to wait for another opportunity. That's costly.

Beyond that, I don't think competition in relation to speed of delivery is a cop out. It's no different than price wars. If someone else is willing to deliver the same quality product at a faster rate, why wouldn't customers flock to them?

Of course you don't want to compromise quality. But that's really a different concept. We aren't talking about changing delivery times to increase quality. We're talking about employee morale. Well unless those folks who are working 40 hour structured weeks (not work time, mind you) are delivering lower quality products, then you indeed have an issue of competition.

Jeff, April 16, 2008, 9:09 PM #

I still disagree. Private or public, a negotiation has to take place somewhere on a process, and government is notorious for getting it backward. That's why they never deliver anything on time! :) I'm not suggesting that there's no accountability, only that the process is backward (and that's out of your control).

For example, we have something at work that needs to coincide with the deployment of a certain project. However, the event is set to coincide with the deployment of the project, not the other way around. Once the requirements were in place, we began working on it, and now that we can see how long it truly will take, we can schedule the event.

This is an iterative process, and it's one that requires constant communication. Scope creep is the enemy, and the customer has to understand that doing one thing will impact delivery time.

Unless a company is outright incompetent, the faster one isn't going to deliver the same quality. I've never seen an example where that was true.

Deadlines impose urgency. If everything is urgent, then everything is important, so nothing is important. Employees never come up for air. It's the EA Games way of software development, and it's not sustainable.

Again, there's always a point where expectations and process is negotiated, and that's the point at which the development is sane or not. From what you've told me about your project, that was out of your control, but you can also see the effects it has. Low morale, lack of leadership, etc. These are all symptoms of broken process. What sucks the most is that the only way to fix it for you personally is to bail, and I know you don't want to do that until you can see it through.

, April 16, 2008, 9:28 PM #

I still do not agree with the broad brush you are using to stroke with. I agree with the concepts you are offering, but they do not work in all cases. In this case, the process may be backwards, but there are legitimate reasons for that. The students' needs according to the academic calendar are prominent. Another factor is the licensing deadlines on legacy systems. I've already mentioned the cost that is accumulating with every passing day. The list goes on and on.

Believe me, with a project of this size, we could easily negotiate the time line out to infinity, but we can't responsibly do that.

And I need to offer a correction. Lack of leadership is not a symptom of a broken process. A broken process is the symptom of a lack of leadership.

Carrie, April 16, 2008, 9:28 PM #

Oops, sorry. That was from me.

Eric, April 16, 2008, 10:18 PM #

Sorry for the late answer on this...

"Why doesn't everyone get a three day weekend? It seems to me that if you make it so, then that's exactly what it is."

Client work required Monday through Friday coverage. Production support required 24/7/365 support.

If everyone took off either Monday or Friday there would not be enough people onsite to meet the needs of the job.

My weekday off was Thursday.

But don't work there any more so I don't really care. :)

Jeff, April 16, 2008, 10:46 PM #

I never suggested you could take forever, I suggested that you can create a reasonable timeline only when you truly understand how long the project will take. You never know until you start, which is why iterative and agile software methodology is so sweet.

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