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Reimagining Work: A Four Day Workweek

Learn about our experiment designed to promote equity and wellbeing.

Authors: Joann Lee Wagner, Vice President of People Operations, Jennifer Njuguna, Co-CEO

Why are we conducting a shorter workweek? How does this connect to our work in the world overall? With organizations across the country preparing to welcome employees back into the office questions like “How many days should employees work from home? Which days? How many vacation days should employees get?” abound a new sense of urgency to how we conduct our working days. We think these are the wrong questions to ask, at least initially. Instead, we ask: “How can we ensure our employees feel respected and honored, and that our policies are equitable, people-first, and encourage intentional productivity?”

At Common Future, we shift capital and we shift power as a nonprofit organization focused on racial justice and economic empowerment. In doing this work, we know that it’s not enough for us to focus solely on the direct work we do as an intermediary. Rather, we know that in addition to our external stakeholders, we must prioritize one of our greatest assets: our people. As such, we have decided to experiment with a 4-day workweek over the Summer.

Yes, you read that right — a 4-day workweek — where our office is closed on Fridays and our staff are working 80% of the time for 100% pay.

While it’s nice to think about another version of “summer Fridays,” which many organizations avail themselves of, we are viewing time as a precious resource and experimenting to test and question many long-held assumptions. Our hypothesis is that working 80% of the time for 100% pay will result in increased productivity, work/life satisfaction, and empowerment for our team at all levels, while positively affecting our culture and cross-team relationships.

As such, we are questioning many long-held assumptions and practices. Here are seven of the assumptions that have come up for us and prompted us to move forward with this experiment:

  • We are questioning the assumption that you must work a 40+ hour week in order to make a significant impact in the world. As many know, the 40+ hour workweek was designed in a time of industrial assembly lines and became popular in the early 20th century. Not only has our world shifted away from an assembly-line model with more service and knowledge orientation, the realities of that time just no longer ring true for today.
  • We are also questioning the existing nonprofit funding model, which often prioritizes programs and outputs, even over the people that work on those programs. We strive to center the wellness of our people, because we have deliberately recruited a team that represents the often marginalized communities that we seek to serve. Prioritizing our team’s wellness goes hand in hand with our mission as an organization.
  • As a majority BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or people of color) and majority women organization working for racial and economic justice, there is a lot of emotional labor and caretaking involved in our work. We recognize all of this and want to ensure that our structures are set up equitably and in ways that account for this ever-present reality.
  • We are also engaging with power dynamics. We want our people, especially those in early career positions, to feel empowered over their schedules and work. We want people to have language in order to advocate for themselves and manage up, across and down.
  • We want to restore rest and joy for staff doing work in an area that can often feel extractive. Perhaps we don’t move the mountain today, but we can at least get the time we need to get more rest and to feel more joy, so that we are energized as we continue to press forward.
  • We are questioning the scarcity mindset that is so pervasive in the nonprofit sector — whether scarcity of resources, people, and/or time. We know that in our work we must be mindful of resources, but we don’t want to start from a place of limit that keeps us in fear and disempowered.
  • We want our staff to know that we see them and their humanity.

An Experiment Designed by Us, for Us

By the numbers:

So, we know you’re thinking ‘this all sounds great, but how exactly are you doing this?’

In order to operationalize our vision of a leading edge workplace that centers equity and the wellbeing of our people, we started, as we often do, by deeply understanding the challenges that our organization might face by working in this way. We conducted focus groups with everyone in our organization, something that is possible because of our relatively small size ~21 people. Those included special focus groups for working mothers, supervisors, and early-career folks. In conducting these focus groups, we triangulated on five key takeaways to help us design the rest of the experiment:

  • Knowing and identifying what’s absolutely essential: At the individual and team level vs. what’s more flexible, and on a “when it’s possible to do” timeline.
  • Naming fear around loss of space and time for creativity, deep thinking, staring off into space until the solution comes to you: As knowledge workers, our work requires and prioritizes thinking more so than production time.
  • Addressing loss of flexibility to determine work schedule: Many working mothers in particular adopted a flexible schedule during COVID-19 to accommodate the loss of childcare. How might reducing to an 80% workweek further impact people who were already working reduced schedules?
  • Establishing new communications norms: We discuss boundaries and expectations around communication and responsiveness on Slack as we would likely lean more on this communication method vs in-person meetings.
  • Communicating to external partners and stakeholders: Many of our staff have work that is external facing. How do we navigate responding to partners and navigating relationship dynamics?

With this in mind, along with the learnings from other 4-day workweek experiments, we designed our experiment in the following way:

Clarifying what’s essential

  • We’ve developed an essential job description asking the team to identify five key areas of work, meetings, and with their managers, places where they could hand things off.
  • We’ve calibrated roles across the organization to reorient around priorities and deprioritize work where needed.
  • We’ve held training meetings before and during the experiment to promote and discuss mindset shifts related to prioritization, power dynamics, team collaboration, and feedback.

Addressing loss of think time, teambuilding, and flexibility

  • We’ve shared guidelines around taking every Friday off, with clear parameters on what is and is not allowed to balance the needs around flexibility while still being able to test our hypothesis.
  • We’ve scheduled an organization-wide no meeting day once a month to promote unstructured learning and thinking time
  • We’ve prioritized team building time and activities to promote culture, which can get lost in a short week.

Managing communications

  • We’ve planned for a three week check-in to troubleshoot the challenges that are coming up.
  • We’ve made communication templates to help explain our 4 day workweek experiment to partners.
  • We’ve planned trainings on how to create boundaries and say “no” to colleagues and partners.

We have and will continue to measure results using time tracking via our database TSheets, pre and post experiment surveys, focus groups, and anecdotal feedback from our team and partners.

What we hope to find

We began this experiment the week of June 4th, so we are in the earlier part of testing our hypothesis. We could be wrong, but we are hopeful and confident that our hypothesis will prove true. If it does, then we will be one of a few nonprofits that helps challenge the dominant narrative around time, resources, and what is needed to advance mission-driven work. We will also be a nonprofit that is Black-led, multi-racial, majority women, that charts our path forward on our terms, as opposed to the whim of funders who may not be on board with us making this kind of decision for ourselves.

Thankfully, we have a Board of Directors that fully supports us and the opportunities we take to experiment. Like our staff, our board is multi-racial, majority women, and comprised of those with experiences rooted in the communities we serve. We are hoping this inspires other nonprofit boards to support staff who consider the strategies and experiments that challenge long-held assumptions, shift away from a scarcity mindset, and support their people.

What you can do (even if you can’t do a 4-day workweek)

We are knowledge workers with a culture of experimentation that allows us to conduct the 4 day workweek in this particular way. We recognize that many other organizations are not set up to experiment in this way. In particular, we are mindful of the different operational structures of certain human service nonprofits or those focused on providing things like direct healthcare services, among others. We also realize that there may be more logistical challenges for larger organizations, though we believe the other 4 day workweek experiments referenced above may offer some guidance. Even if you are not able to do a 4 day workweek experiment, here are a few things you can try to move your teams toward a mindset that promotes more work life balance, equity, abundance, and employee wellbeing:

Talk about power and prioritization

  • Train staff on power dynamics and how they show up in the workplace. In our training, we identified the formal and informal power dynamics that exist in our organization along with ways for both supervisors and direct reports to address them.
  • Train staff up on how to prioritize. We used the “Big Rocks, Little Rocks, Sand” concept that was first popularized by Steven Covey.
  • Train staff on setting boundaries and the many ways to balance saying “no” with being helpful to colleagues.
  • Clarity on what’s essential can go a long way. The essential job description was a great tool to help individuals reflect on their priorities and how they used their time. It also promotes great practices that get us in the habit of reviewing job descriptions to ensure they are updated and accurately reflect the work that our people do.

Rethink time

  • Be very intentional with how time is spent and foster environments where staff have permission to be intentional with different ways to organize their time.
  • Move from a productivity mindset to an impact mindset. By focusing on the outcomes rather than the outputs, efficiencies arise that help achieve the same outcome with less time or busy work.
  • Make meetings more effective. We have defaulted to 30 minute meetings and 45 minutes when needed, rather than a full hour. We have also instructed staff to consider canceling internal meetings if they are all caught up or can quickly check-in via other modes such as Slack.

Switch up how you connect

  • Being on video calls for the entire day is draining. Default to phone and use video sparingly. We save video for our All Team meetings and partner calls and to ensure we don’t lose valuable connections in a remote world, and our Culture Team is tasked with planning opportunities for us to engage collectively.

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