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What digital agency Fifth Tribe learned from its four-day work week pilot

"The stronger your systems are in place, the easier it is to work," said CEO Khuram Zaman on the policy, enacted and iterated on during the pandemic.

Fifth Tribe's 2019 retreat. (Courtesy photo)

Most tech-driven companies made the switch to remote work at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Khuram Zaman, CEO at D.C.-based digital agency Fifth Tribe, said his team enacted an even more extreme new policy: the four-day work week. Or perhaps, the nine-day work biweek. Half the team has off one Friday, and half have off the next.

The shorter or differently organized work week is not unheard of in the tech industry. There’s even a swelling international movement to normalize it.

“I’ve been surprised at how it’s improved productivity,” said the 2020 RealLIST Connectors honoree. “The team is more relaxed, happier, and focused when they come to work.”

Here’s what Zaman had to say via email about how his team executed and iterated on the new policy, and whether they’ll keep it around long term. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.


So how did this happen? When and how did you make the call to transition to working just four days per week? 

Prior to COVID-19, we had allowed folks to work from home on Fridays. Our office was in downtown D.C. next to the White House (McPherson Square Metro) and we just noticed that there was a huge drop in productivity on Fridays. Instead of trying to force people to come to the city on Friday, we let everyone just work from home.

After COVID-19, we first made remote work optional when we first heard about it coming to the U.S. We told the team that once it came to the DC Metro area, remote work would be optional. After about a month of settling into remote work, we noticed that everyone was getting their work done but in less time. Whereas before folks were working 40 to 50 hours a week, most people were getting their work done in about 30 to 35 hours.

We came up with the idea of doing four-day work weeks in May, but it took us about two months to get the logistics hashed out so we didn’t start until July. We had to put a lot of policies and processes in place. For example, what if someone requested PTO on a day when their counterpart was off? We had to figure out what equitable policies would look like. In addition to that, we also needed a lot of processes. We had to map out all of the workflows, create systems to track it, test them out, tweak them, and launch them. So that took a while but once it was up and running — it was pretty awesome.

We initially said it would be a two-month program during July and August. The way it worked was that we would look at all of the client accounts and split the company in half. This way, the clients wouldn’t experience any breakage in services.After August, everyone was asking if it would be extended. Since it was hugely popular, we’ve decided to extend it another two months. For November and December we might not do it because we have a lot of other holidays.

What worked about it?

1.) It helped the team relax. Living in the COVID-19 world has been stressful. Some of the staff have kids and balancing childcare with work has been challenging. Others have side projects like making games or apps and it gave them time to work on it. Others get groceries or run errands. Before, having just two days off felt crunched. Having every other Friday off has allowed the team to stay focused when they work and for the most part its been pretty chill.

2.) It helped the company become more effective. One of the things we didn’t expect was that by having half the team off one week and the other half of the team off the following week is that it kind of forced handoffs. It ended up even making the company more productive by removing bottlenecks, tightening up processes, and promoting knowledge sharing. In Nassim Taleb’s book “Antifragile,” he argues that the probability of major catastrophes might be low but their impact is disproportionate and might lead to systems failure. Instead of trying to predict every Black Swan, focus on doing what nature does — building redundancy. I think that’s been the biggest benefit of the alternative four day work weeks: It’s built a lot of redundancy and allows better load sharing across the team. There’s also this benefit of cross-sectionality across accounts. Now we have more people looking at the same problems and everyone brings their unique perspectives in terms of how to solve it.

3.) The clients liked it. The clients liked it because they got to see more people across the team.

What didn’t?

The biggest failure of doing this is that sometimes people would forget to do handoffs. We dealt with this in two ways.

Firstly, we told everyone that we’re going to try this out as an experiment. If there were any major client fires, we’d ask folks to come in. This happened a few times in the beginning because there weren’t proper handoffs.

Secondly, we started doing handoff checkouts on Thursday afternoons to make sure that the time that was working the following day would have everything they needed. Usually Fridays are a light load but we do have some client reporting meetings and make sure the team presenting on that day had all of the data ready to go was something we needed to complete on Thursdays while everyone was in the office.

You’re extending it, why? Is it indefinite?

We’re extending because it’s very popular with staff. Everyone expressed interest in keeping it and appreciated having the extra time off for various reasons.

In terms of whether it’s indefinite or not: We had initially conceived of it as just being a two-month test in the summer but everyone liked it. I think right now we’re doing it on a quarter-by-quarter basis. I think once we return to a semblance of normalcy, we might just keep it with the summer. However, right now, the cognitive overload is high and having an extra day off every other week is helpful.

Do you think this is something every employer should try or is there something unique about your firm that made it work?

We’re a digital agency that’s pretty adept at doing everything online. We have a lot of tools we use to streamline communication to minimize face to face interactions: Jira (tickets for software projects), Delibr (product roadmaps), Confluence (note taking), Service Desk (for clients to create issues), Airtable (manage workflow and tasks for non-tech related projects), and of course Slack. We try to keep Zoom meetings short — no longer than 30 to 45 minutes.

We also have a pretty balanced team where at least two people can do the same work (developers, designers, marketers, PMs, account managers, etc).

I’m not sure how it would work for other industries (say a restaurant), but I’d be happy to chat with anyone who is interested in giving it a shot and help them figure out a roll out strategy catered to theirs specific organizational needs.

Any advice to other employers who might want to try something like this?

I would recommend at least trying it out for a two-month duration and see how it works out for everyone from the team to the leadership to the clients. It may take two to three iterations for it to get optimized, but give it a shot. You’ll learn a lot about your company and where its processes might need tightening. You’ll also learn about who on your team is being overworked and others who might be underworked and where there are opportunities to balance project loads across the team more evenly.

We have two types of clients: retainers and project-based. The best way to ensure that you are meeting deadlines is by tracking all of them major deliverables in a transparent system and allowing people to work in blocks of time. The biggest change that needs to be made is getting rid of ad hoc meetings and replacing them with more frequent but smaller check-ins.

As the CEO, I don’t really take off on Fridays. You need at least one senior level manager working on Fridays to ensure there are not major fires.

The stronger your systems are in place, the easier it is to work.

Series: How to Work Remotely / Coronavirus

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