In this guest blog Zahra Davidson, Chief Exec of Enrol Yourself, shares some emerging principles for a shorter working week, one month into their pilot.
At Enrol Yourself we’re reducing our working hours to 90% this year, with no less pay. We made the decision last summer to go ahead, and we leapt straight in at the start of January.
We’re motivated by the benefits we believe will come, including; enhanced wellbeing and focus for our team; more time for each of us to rest, learn and connect with friends and family; a smaller carbon footprint as individuals and as an organisation; a visible demonstration of our values that can act as a beacon, helping us connect to those with shared values that we might work with.
I’m proud that we’re taking the leap, particularly because it does feel scary for a small social enterprise at our stage of our development. Can we make it work in practice, in the long-term?
To support ourselves to do just that, we’ve set up the League of Less Work: a peer learning expedition for people and organisations who are committed to reducing their working hours. Members of the League might be actively exploring how it would work for them, building the case within their organisation, or actively piloting. We’ll be swapping strategies and support over 9 months, starting in March.
In this blog I’ll share some emerging principles for reduced working hours.
How’s it going in practice?
90% working hours means that our team now take every other Friday off, at no less pay. We alternate between Fridays ‘On’ and Fridays ‘Off’. Fridays On are days dedicated to team time, learning and strategy.
To make this work we’re intentionally re-structuring our week so that most team meetings, sessions and collaborative activities happen on Fridays On.
The idea is that grouping these meetings will leave the other weekdays free to a greater extent, allowing for more flow, and hopefully creating efficiencies that will ‘offset’ Fridays Off. Fridays Off create a fortnightly 3-day weekend, regularly allowing us to rest, recharge and switch off more deeply.
Admittedly it’s very early days for us, and it’s too soon to understand the impact this will have on productivity, wellbeing, focus, impact etc. Nevertheless, here are some early reflections.
In terms of my own workload, I have found that I’ve worked longer hours during the 4-day week, essentially compressing the hours into 4 days. However, this has still felt preferable to spreading the hours over 5 days, because the 3-day weekends allow me to switch off to such a greater extent. So whilst I’m determined that this isn’t the rhythm I settle into, it still feels like a good start.
As a team we have discussed how much we’ve looked forward to Fridays this year, both Fridays On and Off. It has felt like a relief to know we won’t have externally facing delivery work on Fridays. This is often the work that requires the most energy, and the end of the week is usually when you have the least.
Spending these days with the team feels well matched to the energy we have on Fridays. We’ve found ourselves leaving for the weekend on more of an ‘up’ as a result of spending more time together. We’ve also been looking forward to Monday mornings more than usual, and feeling a greater sense of being eager to get stuck in.
One member of our team has coined Fridays Off as ‘Future Fridays’ and will be volunteering at Spitalfields City Farm each fortnight. Personally, I am thinking of these days as a chance for exercise, movement, and looking after myself in ways I have never taken time to in the past. It’s great to see this space open up new opportunities for us.
Our newest team member said “er, I wouldn’t have taken the job if it was five days a week”. As an employer this interests me. I believe that one of the biggest impacts we have as an organisation is on the people in our team, and too often I’ve seen social impact organisations sacrifice the wellbeing of people on the inside for impact on the outside. This feels like a really tangible way of valuing the team we have, and appealing to people that might join us in future. Incidentally I think I would now feel the same way if I were taking a job: that I would be disinclined to work for an organisation that wasn’t modelling transformation.
Lastly, it feels exciting to be ‘putting our money where our mouth is’, and doing so visibly. Several new connections and interesting conversations have already sparked as a result of this, and hopefully there are lots more to come, both through the League and more broadly.
Which principles are guiding you?
These principles will evolve as we gain more first hand experience, but here are a few things which might help people and organisations thinking about taking this step:
Crucial to making our decision to go down to 90% was a series of conversations with our friends at LearnJam. They piloted a 4 day week in 2021, it was a great success and they’re not looking back. Hearing first hand accounts of their experiences and the benefits and challenges they’re encountering, gave us the confidence to take the leap. Knowing them and trusting them was integral to this. We had read articles and research, but it wasn’t enough. Peer exchange with LearnJam allowed us to build on their experiences whilst staying anchored to the specifics of our own context, culture and business model.
I mentioned above that we are grouping synchronous sessions together for Fridays On. This is just one example of how we are restructuring our approach to time to enable this change. It was helpful for us to really interrogate some of our assumptions with a view to rethinking them. For example, I had an internalised belief that increased feelings of focus and wellbeing are great, but not as valuable as hours spent actually working. I’ve had to reframe this belief in order to get started: viewing feelings of focus and wellbeing as equally or possibly more valuable. We have found that restructuring our relationships to time is a social process. It cannot be done solo through sheer force of will. We need social reinforcement and support to unpick deeply held (and often unconscious) beliefs.
Our discussions about time always lead swiftly into talk about meetings, and how to balance the value of solo and collaborative time. An assumption we held in relation to this was that we felt our time was well spent in a 90 minute team meeting every Monday. For now we have undone this assumption and we’re playing with a different configuration, although it helps us to remember that we can always switch back. We’re also playing with flexible defaults, e.g. usually only one team member will participate in an external meeting, then update others. This requires the person in the meeting to do a bit more work afterwards; so that the team overall can do less. This mindset is easier to adopt when you already have significant mastery of your own time. So I have a question about how we nurture this within our team.
Synchronous, meeting-based decision making is a well known energy drain in organisations everywhere. It’s hard to get beyond this culture because it’s so important for morale that people participate in decision making. At Enrol Yourself we use a license model for some of our work and we were already interested in distributed and alternative forms of decision making, which feels highly relevant now we’re reducing our hours. We’ve been playing with the advice process and with asynchronous methods like quick fire emoji voting. We’re finding that this can shortcut longer conversations and allow for a greater range of participation preferences.
Time and money are very closely related, and most of us tend to equate one with the other. LearnJam encouraged us to loosen this association, for example by exploring values-based pricing for our work. This means pricing based on the value of a piece of work to a client, not only based on the amount of time you spend. It feels new and a bit uncomfortable but we have started to explore how this could work for us. As a young organisation we are also on a journey to just value ourselves sufficiently to start with. The less we value our time and our work, the more strain we put ourselves under, and the less possible it feels to make a shorter working week work for us. We’ve been thinking across our ‘portfolio’ of activity; what creates surplus, what doesn’t? How can we create a good balance that reduces strain?
How to connect?
As a small team we are able to take the leap and learn by doing. I want to acknowledge that you may be reading this thinking that it isn’t so simple for you. Maybe you work for a larger, more complex organisation. Maybe you don’t hold the decision making power. Perhaps you would first need to prove to a board of trustees that this is the right thing to do.
If you want support to work through these knotty challenges, or the challenges of putting less work into practice, then the League might be for you. Applications to join are open until February 24th.