On an average we spend 90,000 hours of our waking lives in the confines of an office. With Slack pings and Teams beeps, and the blurred boundaries of work and home in the last two years, it’s no wonder that many are mulling over the benefits of a four-day work week.
Although the discourse around the shortened workweek has been around for a while, the pandemic and our shifting priorities propelled it into action. As you read this story, more than 3,300 employees in 70 UK companies, ranging from the local chippy to large financial institutions, are currently trying out the world’s biggest four-day week trial for six months—that’s 100% productivity in 80% time with 100% pay.
But in Asia, hard work and the 'always-on' mentality are still predominantly linked with success. So in agency settings where business often runs on the whims of clients’ schedules, is a four-day workweek a viable model?
A study published earlier this year in HR Magazine found a third of officegoers in APAC experienced burnout, with Singapore and India among the most burnt-out countries and 58% employees were looking to switch jobs as a solution.
Oliver Woods, founder of Beer Asia, a Singapore-based digital branding and strategy firm for the region's beer industry, is part of the growing contingent of progressive companies trying this innovative model. Having worked hectic hours at former advertising agencies like Leo Burnett among others, he tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that his start-up switched to a four-day model in 2020 and they’re never looking back.
“I was frustrated with the old-fashioned working style at agencies where deadlines piled onto the weekend and then you ended up dealing with stressed, grumpy, or rushed people on a Monday morning," he says. “It’s not just big for mental health, the extra downtime makes up for increased effectiveness and productivity at work. There is a sense of balance that we live beyond our work."
Woods' clients are spread all over Asia and while most of them do not work on the same model, it’s the way they’ve implemented the concept that doesn’t cause friction.
“We don’t rigidly have a Monday to Thursday model," Woods explains. "Instead, we work half days on Mondays and also Fridays. We use these days to deal with any urgent meetings and set the agenda for the rest of the three days where our productivity is at maximum.”
London-based creative agency Mox is one of the many UK companies that has joined the six-month trial. Matt Bolton, co-founder, and creative director of MOX found the concept a no-brainer.
“Formalising a way to help our employees regain control of their week and their free time is something the industry should have been doing long before now. We’re happy to take the first step on that journey," he says.
But agencies don’t work in isolation.
Clients, vendors, third-parties collaborate in tandem often for months on a project, so does one party taking a day-off cause upheaval in an otherwise carefully woven system?
“Our clients are onboard with the setup, while they don’t operate on such a model by and large they are understanding and respectful of our decision," says Woods. "It’s also because we approach tasks with 100% energy, there is no burnout or room for slacking, and we are technically available on all five days, albeit only for four hours on Monday and Friday."
Both Beer Asia and Mox are relatively smaller creative shops which Woods agrees was the key in allowing them to be able to smoothly switch to a four-day model. Bigger networks like Dentsu with a large workforce, billable hours and other constraints will have a phenomenal amount of streamlining to do to implement the concept.
The reality is more complicated
Is the four-day workweek just a pipe dream then?
“Never say never,” quips Amit Wadhwa, CEO of Dentsu Creative India. “Before the pandemic, no one thought work from home was possible for the creative industry. But we did function just fine. A four-day week is different. The challenges are many, of course if everyone unanimously wants it, the constraints can be ironed out, but a lot of thought will have to go into it. It’s not an overnight process and a lot will depend on the client."
The precise definition and interpretation of a four-day workweek seems to be missing. Some companies prefer to stick to 40-hours; many like Woods' bring it down to a 32-hour week, but all insist that the same amount of work—at a minimum—must get done.
"Humans are not machines. In a creative business, you cannot force and squeeze people to do 100% work in 80% time. For this arrangement we will need more manpower. A replacement or hiring more people involves cost. There are other practical challenges—some people know brand X inside out, logistically how do you manage without their presence on the fifth day? Or just schedule back-to-back meetings in the four days they are present without any room for thinking? That’s not constructive, nor feasible in the long run."
—Amit Wadhwa, Dentsu Creative India
Ollie Scott, founder of London-based agency Unknown, fears the shortened workweek might just end up adding more pressure on employees and defeat the very purpose of it for mental health.
“We have to be careful with this concept. Compressed hours are a great idea, but slowly what can happen in eight hours, will extend to ten. One hour lunch breaks won’t happen anymore. Zoom calls will stretch at 8pm, 9pm and then bam… there you have an unsustainable working day that suddenly becomes the business norm. And that's a huge red flag," he says. “A side hustle or moonlight on the fifth day sounds awesome, but in reality, in those four days we’re talking about relentless focus on efficiency and productivity, compressed calls that allow no time for thinking, and for me, that’s worrying.”
Scott adds that free time as a result of a shortened workweek could be quickly deleted from calendars to appease the hourly rate mentality that the industry "just can't seem to shrug off".
Scott comes from a place of reason. Passionate about progressive ways of reimagining work, he tried the unlimited fully paid holiday rule at Unknown for a year and then killed it for 32 dedicated annual leave days.
“No one took more than 21 days in the year. That was consistent among the top performers, so it sort of set a weird guilty standard among the rest. And research (not mine!) says humans work best when they’re given clarity and tokens to spend instead of something undefined," he says.
Woods of Beer Asia agrees that finishing work in four days is a crunch. To achieve maximum productivity, lunch hour has reduced to 30-minutes, unnecessary communications are trimmed, the team works with undeterred discipline and focus during the workday.
“I don’t know if pitch-heavy and project-heavy creative agencies can implement this," Scott adds. "Look what the lockdown did for presenteeism, there will always be another agency more available round the corner. You have to be in a very strong place with some very happy and understandable clients.
Wadhwa nods in approval: “We want a balance, we want to do great work; and also have the discipline of an office setting while having fun with colleagues.”
What is a logical evolution?
Unless regulations are in place and clients are fully aligned, it’s difficult for agencies to scale back, says MediaMonks China managing director Rogier Bikker. Riding the tailwinds of economic growth in China, Bikkier argues that flexibility and an 'anytime, anywhere' model while meeting client demands is the next step for work-life balance. But a high-pressure four-day week is not in the pipeline.
“Similar results can be achieved by providing flexibility to talent," he says. "There is no one-size fits all solution in the creative world. Some people work better early morning, others like to start late, some love the ‘water cooler’ moments at office and others enjoy their space at home. We incorporate all this in our work policy, discourage long griding hours to avoid burnout, and offer a level of flexibility while meeting client demands.”
Personally, for Dentsu's Wadhwa, cramming all his work into the shorter week for a three-day off sounds like a trade-off and does not have significant appeal over the flexible work model which Dentsu currently offers.
“Trying to squeeze in numerous brainstorming sessions and back-to-back meetings will not help with the stress. It's important to have banter at work, take coffee breaks with colleagues, all that is motivational”, he says.
Unknown's Scott adds that “it will come at the cost of missing deeper connections at work, because everything becomes too 'efficiency' focussed. You might end up thinking you're a productive workaholic legend."
Joe O'Connor, CEO at 4 Day Week Global Foundation which helps organisations around the world transition to the four-day model and is also currently aiding with the large-scale implementation of the UK trial, explains that the shorter workweek model "will solve a lot of practical business problems including improving retention and attracting better talent". He argues that it gives more time for rest, recovery and professional development, and eliminating inefficiencies will be an incentive for clients.
"This is not an overnight process, you don't suddenly have to give 52-extra days off to employees in a year. There is a transition period for it. Many times agencies are worried about clients but they can end up being your biggest supporters. The very idea is to radically reform unnecessary meetings, use technology more thoughtfully and mindfully redesign the day in order to let employees get on with actual work."
—Joe O'Connor, 4 Day Week Global Foundation
Well, like with a lot of things in the pandemic, the four-day workweek is an experiment. Perhaps one whose hypothesis is worth exploring regardless of results.