Four-day week? Independent agencies experiment to reduce overwork

Hong Kong-based APV is trying a four-day work week, while Hong Kong Secret Tour gave everyone a month-long sabbatical (in two 'shifts').

Mark Erder (centre) with APV staff.
Mark Erder (centre) with APV staff.

There is never enough time to get work done in adland. Of the 572 respondents answering Campaign’s workplace survey late last year, 59% said they work more than 51 hours a week. Yet shorter working hours, although rare, are not totally unheard of in an industry notorious for being chronically overworked.

Danish agency IIH Nordics which has offices in Stockholm, Oslo and London, claimed it invented the four-day, 30-hour week to allow its employees to skip work on Fridays on full salary since early 2017. Elsewhere, Wieden+Kennedy began offering an 11-month contract option in its Tokyo office starting last year. Employees who want to take a month off will have their total income reduced by the equivalent of a month’s pay, but they retain the same benefits and get paid every month.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong-based digital agency APV in February began a three-month trial of a four-day work week. Founder Mark Erder told Campaign Asia-Pacific that an article about low agency morale came as a wake-up call, and he was further inspired by a recent BBC article espousing the benefits of a four-day week. “I was thinking about how hard everyone worked last year and what a difficult year it was," he said. "For the business we are in, there were few rewards…It is one way of saying ‘thank you’ for the hard work last year, and one way of helping people balance their lives.” 

Still, it came as a surprise to him that a few of his 15-member staff had balked at the idea of taking Fridays off. Creative consultant Samantha Morris pointed out that closing the entire office every Friday is not feasible in terms of client service. The agency eventually worked out an arrangement where everyone comes in on Monday while having the option to take a day off between Tuesday and Friday.

A few critics panned the four-day week as being counterproductive, as it would put extra stress on employees to do the same amount of work within a shorter time frame. But Erder emphasised that employees are not expected to put in more hours in lieu of the shorter working week. 

“We’ve never really been time watchers in this company," he said. "If they want to put in six or eight hours a day, it’s up to them. They are all treated as mature adults and they know what they have to do. Oftentimes, it annoys me when people stick around. Sometimes it means you are not managing your time properly, winding up working late and getting tired unnecessarily."

Jacqui Barratt, CEO of recruitment firm Salt APAC, agreed that it is important to engage in adult conversations and that flexibility goes both ways. “Agencies predominantly have not been particularly creative in employment relationships,” said Barratt. “It is refreshing to hear more and more agencies are starting to consider different working arrangements. Candidates are demanding more flexibility or different ways of working. Companies need to set that it’s not the hours you’ve put in [that matter] but the outcome you’ve achieved.”

Erder conceded that February was not a particularly busy month, especially given the Chinese New Year break, and the four-day plan may not always be practical when the workload gets heavier.

“It’s down to the individual," he said. "My preference is for them to take a day off [during the week]. But if they say ‘Oh my god’, there’s a proposal that needs to be done by Friday, then they may have to come to work in all likelihood.”

Erder is the only member of the agency not observing the four-day week, since he said he enjoys enough perks. Morris uses the day off to spend time with family and pursue photography, while creative director Leslie Wong attends prenatal yoga class with his wife.

“There has been such a miniscule pay rise in the last couple of years because companies couldn’t afford it," Erder said. "When you can’t give back in money, you give back in time for people like Leslie who needs the time.” He suggested that the four-day week may be permanent if employees are happy and profitabilty is maintained after the end of the three-month experiment. “I hope it will make us more efficient and generate more profit. There’s a lot of hope embedded in this.”


If a four-day week seems groundbreaking, independent agency Secret Tour Hong Kong implemented a slightly more original plan of having half of its 16-member staff work while the other half went on a month-long sabbatical. Business director Sammi Chan explained that getting the staff to take turns between August and October last year was more convenient than giving them the option to decide when to take off throughout the year. The agency informed clients about the arrangement ahead of time, and the management planned a workload that was manageable for half of the workforce during those two months.

Chan said that staff who held the fort were not overly burdened and clients did not complain about slower response time. Likewise, profitability was not much affected during those two months.

“The reason to have a one-month sabbatical was for everyone to have a good rest," Chan said. "It was not our intention to get everyone to work doubly hard after coming back from the month-long break.” Nevertheless, many employees at STHK typically work from 10 am to 10 pm every day. Overtime benefits at STHK include uncapped meal allowance and taxi allowance, incentives that Salt’s Barrat said will rub certain employees the wrong way.

“’Of course I will work late to get the free meals and taxi back’, some will think this way,” said Barrat. "It is driving up the overhead cost, and agencies may not be able to charge it on clients if the employees are constantly doing rework."

She added that agencies drive some of their own behaviours. "If they start work at 8:30 in the morning like normal businesses, people may not have to work till 11 at night,” Barrat said.

Secret Tour Hong Kong staff discussing the overwork issue during a family open day at the agency recently (video is in Cantonese; source: Facebook page):

Chan said long working hours are an ongoing industry problem, as all are well aware. “Certainly we wish to finish work earlier, but it is determined by clients and vendors that we work with a lot of the time,” said Chan. All of STHK's staff took up the sabbatical and came back rejuvenated, but the agency will be putting the plan on hold this year. “It is not really necessary to take a month off every year, but we will consider it after a few years because it had been a positive experience,” Chan said.

Barratt emphasised that a commercially viable plan is a sustainable plan. While independent outfits may have more flexibility to try out different arrangements and offer such perks to draw talent, 4A agencies must realise that an increasing number of employees are looking for more time rather than money.

“People who want to make a change often go to the client side," Barratt said. "Most of the time I would say it’s because of the hours. I think it’s the biggest driver these days. People are burning out even though they love their jobs.”

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