Four-day work week might be worth figuring out for some companies, experts agree

Iversoft, led by CEO Graeme Barlow (front centre), has seen an increase in engagement and productivity since offering "competitive flexibility" with a four-day work week. File photo

What started as a 90-day experiment with the four-day work week has led to what is now a staple in Ottawa software company Iversoft’s work culture – but HR experts say it might not be a fit for every business.

Iversoft CEO Graeme Barlow says he is still seeing the benefits of the added flexibility for his team, two years after the change. 

In March 2021, the Iversoft team was adjusting to remote work and the new demands that the pandemic was placing on team members, both in their professional and personal lives. Then, Barlow and his leadership team made a critical change – they created a compressed work week, adjusting hours of operation to 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Thursday. 

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“The original discussion was about how families have a lot to deal with. There’s a lot going on and we’re fortunate enough to be in a line of work where we can work asynchronously,” said Barlow. “We had to figure out, ‘What were people looking for?’”

The company’s 50 employees were expected to be available for client calls, meetings and other tasks in the compressed timeframe. Outside of those hours, their time was their own. 

“The whole emphasis was on flexibility and accommodation of people’s lives,” Barlow told OBJ. “We have a lot of really smart, intelligent, talented, good people and we trust them to make adult decisions on how they manage their time.”

Since Iversoft implemented the new compressed work week, Barlow said productivity and engagement have increased across the company.

Retention is also up. Since the shift to four-day weeks, Barlow said he’s lost very few employees and had “no issue hiring” with the “competitive flexibility.” It has also allowed the company to hire employees from out-of-province.

Before the pandemic, all of Iversoft’s employees were located in the Ottawa area. Now, Barlow says about 40 per cent are local residents while the others are distributed across Canada, with one employee even working from Nunavut.

“The quality in terms of software development has improved,” explained Barlow. “The quality and calibre of talent has gone up, because we don’t have to hire in a specific geography and our competitive flexibility opens up so many opportunities.”

According to a recent study from Robert Half Canada, 91 per cent of senior managers support a work week of four 10-hour days for their team, and 69 per cent anticipate their company will implement it within the next five years. Employees were asked what they most hoped for professionally, and while 21 per cent listed a raise, 23 per cent of employees ranked a four-day work week as their top choice.

There are two common approaches to a reduced work week: reduced hours and, consequently, salaries; or, a condensed week. Iversoft chose the latter. 

Karen Brownrigg, founder and CEO of iHR Advisory Services, said that both options have benefits as long as leadership teams “mitigate the risks.” If companies don’t monitor their employees’ work and stress levels, Brownrigg said she hears “alarm bells” from the compressed work week.

“It’s about how companies are ensuring that employees aren’t overextending themselves. Are they working for four days? Are they working more than that?” she said. “It can lead to more burnout if it isn’t very deliberately managed.” 

Barlow said Iversoft takes a “proactive stance” and tries to avoid overtime hours and “stay on top of burnout.” The firm, which specializes in mobile app and web development, also offers seminars and other resources about managing stress and burnout.

“We’re also strict on our schedules to make sure people don’t exceed 35 to 40 hours per week,” Barlow said. “If they are, we sit down to see if it’s our expectations that need to be adjusted, what the demands are that are overworking them, and what we will do to fix it.”

Heidi Hauver, the chief people officer at TrackTik, said flexibility is vital for keeping employees in good spirits, especially at this time of year.

“I do believe that one of the challenges of working remotely is the sense of isolation, and the pandemic brought that to light on a grand scale,” she said.

The cold months can bring isolation and flu season and, in the world of remote work, Hauver said employees can sometimes experience what is referred to as the “winter blues,” and some team members experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which makes this time of the year more difficult. 

“A lot of companies use this time of year to kick off health and wellness initiatives or resources in the workplace, and it’s a good time to do it,” she said. 

Increased flexibility can help encourage employees to embrace healthy habits, like daily exercise, Hauver added. “It’s on us to create those opportunities.”

While Hauver said she hasn’t personally embraced the four-day work week, flexibility of any kind can help to support and accommodate employees and should be a goal for leadership.

“I’m a big believer in leaning in and understanding our unique team needs and what flexibility looks like to them,” she said. The tech industry, she mentioned, might have an easier time embracing a four-day week than others. 

“I do believe flexibility is here to stay,” she added. “Team members have been asking for it since before the pandemic and we’re being given an opportunity to embrace it.”

Brownrigg says while “four-day work weeks aren’t a new concept,” there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

“More flexibility will always create a more engaged employee,” she said. “Organizations are under a lot of pressure. It’s really hard to recruit and retain people and sometimes we see a quick reaction, but you have to think through how to operationalize that and make sure you look at what could be problematic and address that.

“It’s a good thing as long as you understand the objectives. What are the objectives and what are the potential pitfalls and how are you putting a strategy in place to manage the pitfalls?” she said. “We have to ask, ‘What could go wrong and what are we putting in place so our employees know they can disconnect outside of work hours?’”

Barlow said he encourages all leadership teams to at least consider making the switch.

“I have heard from so many organizations who say they couldn’t possibly do it,” he said. “But as a leadership group, you just have to commit to it and start figuring it out.

“As a leader, you have to protect your people. For us in software, what we sell is people and talent, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to protect and enhance our people,” said Barlow. “Shockingly, that comes from not burning them out.”

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

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