Four-day weeks? Move to flex schedules a work in progress for Ottawa tech firms

Jason Flick
Jason Flick

With more Ottawans juggling office duties with domestic responsibilities as they work from home during the pandemic, a growing number of local tech executives say they’re looking at adding flexible scheduling options such as four-day weeks in a bid to help employees maintain better work-life balance.

Mobile app and web development firm Iversoft began offering employees the option of working 10-hour days, four days a week, about a month ago. The company said the pilot program aims to give workers “increased flexibility to build their own schedules – so as to best accommodate family and personal time, and to nurture physical and mental health and well-being.”

CEO Graeme Barlow said virtually all of his 30 employees took the company up on its offer. As a result, Iversoft no longer schedules any meetings, events or mandatory gatherings on Fridays.

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Although most workers have chosen to take three-day weekends, Barlow said the idea behind the policy is really to allow employees more leeway to set a schedule that suits them – whether that’s working a compressed week with longer hours or putting in shorter days from Monday to Friday and punching in on weekends from time to time.  

“So far, people have been super enthusiastic,” Barlow recently told OBJ. “I don’t know why we didn’t do it before.”

The veteran marketing executive says many companies have traditionally balked at straying from the traditional five-day, 40-hour week – a concept he believes is outdated in an age when technology allows people to work wherever they want, whenever they want.

“The way it was doesn’t necessarily mean it was right,” he said, adding he believes Iversoft’s new policy will lead to a happier, healthier and more productive workforce in the long run.

Choice and flexibility

Barlow is far from the only business or political leader embracing the concept of more flexible work hours as a way to give stressed-out workers more control over their schedules – and perhaps even give the economy a boost while they’re at it.

Earlier this year, for example, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made headlines around the world when she urged employers to consider a four-day week or other scheduling options.

Ardern said she felt more people would travel domestically if they had longer weekends, thereby helping to prop up the country’s ailing tourism industry in the process. She added that the COVID-19 lockdown has proven that “productivity that can be driven out of” working from home.

A local expert in workplace health and behaviour agrees, saying multiple studies over the past couple of decades have shown that compressed work schedules generally lead to more satisfied employees without undermining their ability to get the job done.

Laurent Lapierre, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, said the key is giving people a say in when and how they work. He praised Iversoft’s decision to offer its employees the option to work four-day weeks rather than imposing a blanket policy.

“That’s exactly what companies should be doing,” Lapierre said, noting it gives workers the feeling they have a measure of control over their work environment. “Employees want to have a say in their work schedule in order to be able to best juggle their work and their personal lives.”

Keira Torkko, the vice-president of employee experience at Ottawa-based software firm Assent Compliance, says the company is looking at various ways of offering its 550 employees more scheduling options to help them balance their work and personal lives.

“Right now, everyone’s reality is a bit different,” Torkko said. “I certainly think the element of choice and flexibility will be important to us moving forward, but … without feedback from our team members and figuring out how that works from a customer and business standpoint, we haven’t gotten to that level of detail yet.”

While he agreed that work-life balance is an important issue, Calian chief executive Kevin Ford said more flexible work arrangements aren’t always feasible in a business world that’s been based on the Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 model for decades.

“I couldn’t do a universal four-day work week at Calian because our customers would not allow that,” OBJ’s 2017 CEO of the Year explained, adding he feels 10-hour days might take too much of a physical toll on employees in the company’s manufacturing plants.

Offering some workers the option of four-day weeks while denying it to others could also create the perception there are “two classes of people in the company” and cause friction in the 3,500-person firm’s ranks, he warned.

“You’ve got to be really thinking about this,” he said.

At Kanata software firm You.i TV, CEO Jason Flick said he’s all for offering the firm’s 230 employees more scheduling options, adding he thinks a one-size-fits-all approach ultimately leads to a more disgruntled, less productive workforce.

“We’re going to work with each job description and each person and find out what makes sense for them,” he said of the company’s plan to offer more flexible work options. “I don’t believe in a standard policy.” 

Ottawa-based Ross Video, meanwhile, temporarily implemented four-day, 32-hour weeks at 80 per cent regular pay for all workers earlier this year as a cost-cutting measure during the pandemic. 

The company has since reverted to a traditional five-day work week for most employees, and CEO David Ross said no one has been pushing to alter that model. But he said he’d consider offering more flexible work options if staffers requested them – while noting that sometimes it can be a challenge for some people to “figure out how to stop working” in such scenarios.

“The goal is to get the job done, not to put in (a set number of) hours,” he said. “I’d be open to it.”

Back at Iversoft, Barlow said the COVID-19 crisis has forced companies like his to experiment with new concepts such as a fully remote workforce and the four-day week – changes they didn’t necessarily expect to make, but ones that could bring long-term benefits.   

“I feel the (pandemic) is a good time to try things that might be uncomfortable,” he said. “I don’t see a downside.”

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