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Moving to a 4-day workweek is possible when the CEO believes in it: An Uncharted case study

Moving to a 4-day workweek is possible when the CEO believes in it: An Uncharted case study


Here's how Banks Benitez, Co-Founder and CEO of Uncharted, moved his entire workforce to a four-day workweek, i.e. working 32 hours/week at 100% pay with no loss to productivity — all of this amidst the pandemic.

Uncharted, a Denver-based social impact accelerator that has worked with 87+ social impact startups, started looking into the four-day workweek back in November 2019. At the time, there were few examples of companies that had explored the idea, and therefore, some research was needed, Banks Benitez, Co Founder and CEO of Uncharted, tells HRO's Arina Sofiah.

“I ran it by our executive team in December 2019, and asked: ‘Should we try this out in 2020?’ And so, Uncharted agreed to get into it in the new year.”

Until COVID-19 hit. Benitez acknowledges that this outbreak made him ponder the move: Was this the best time or the worst time to switch to a four-day workweek? The team then contemplated the idea of carrying out a three-month trial of a four-day workweek.

“This is not the worst time, it's the best time,” Benitez concluded amidst it all.

And so began the journey. Following the decision, Uncharted announced its four-day workweek to the team in early May of 2020. The team collaborated all throughout the month of May, identifying the best way to optimise the week. The pilot was then launched for June-August 2020.

The pilot yielded positive results, much to the joy of the team. For a thorough analysis, the organisation hired a third-party evaluator to evaluate the data. Prior to the pilot, they had already began by collecting baseline data. Eventually, in September, Uncharted made the four-day workweek a part of its company policy. Curious, we ask Benitez how the transition took place. The first, he shares, was the design phase.

“The executive team designed the four-day workweek and standardised the same day off for all employees — Friday. In terms of compensation, it was decided that employees would get 100% compensation for 80% hours.

They would get paid fully for working four eight-hour days, not four 10-hour days,” he explains.

Phase two then focused on collaborative team planning, with the intention to decentralise decision making. Each department considered the best way to optimise the workweek with each specific dimension of work in mind, be it marketing, finance, operations, or fundraising. Through it all, Uncharted wanted to distribute the responsibility of the four-day workweek across the entire team.

Over the course of the pilot, the organisation consistently received feedback from staff, reviewing what worked and what did not, along with the challenges faced. When necessary, tweaks were made along the way.

Putting it simply, Benitez compares implementing a four-day workweek to a fitness membership, noting that in the same way that owning a gym membership doesn't guarantee optimal health and fitness, a four-day workweek “does not guarantee that all of a sudden, everything is better.” Instead, it requires specific fitness on an ongoing basis. The company is still practising the four-day workweek.

The highs, the lows, and the reflections

Even with such thorough preparation, the team did face certain concerns. For instance, the perception of its customers, partners, and external stakeholders— would they perceive that Uncharted was not serious about its work, or that the team was not available when needed?

The response turned out to be a “pleasantly” surprising one, as partners and peers “completely understood” and were supportive of the change. In fact, it gave them the motivation to accomplish their tasks in four days as well. In the two years that have passed, there have been a lot more proof points out there of companies trialling shorter workweeks than there were in early 2020. As such, there is even more credibility now, Benitez believes.

Secondly, the organisation placed great focus on how it organised and structured its weeks.

Instead of only utilising the calendar to highlight meetings and leaving the blank spaces in between to be filled in with time to get work done, it inverted the calendar.

With this, only after allocating time for important tasks, did they use the remaining time for meetings.

Finally, Benitez admits to first feeling incomplete on a shorter workweek. “So much of the broader work culture right now is, ‘everything's a priority. Everything's urgent. Everything must be perfect. You can't deprioritise anything’. When I close my laptop on Thursday, I feel like I haven't gotten it all done, but I've done truly the most important work.

“And so, for me personally, shifting my relationship to this idea of incompleteness has been important. And in some ways, we overwork ourselves because we've convinced ourselves that everything must be complete. That's not necessarily true.”

On a larger scale, he has observed the prioritisation of working hard over working smart, whether it be in the social impact sector or the broader workforce. He therefore challenges – why not work smarter, instead of harder? There is certainly a need to shift cultural norms away from working hard as a badge to working smart for success.

In taking this leap, Benitez points out several benefits of implementing a four-day workweek in the organisation. There was a reduction of workplace stress and an improvement in mental health, as compared with the baseline data collected before the four-day workweek commenced. There was no drop in productivity – instead, employees became better decision makers.

“I always tell people that Uncharted might not be in the top 1% of all compensation, but we are in the top 1% of workweeks as a competitive recruiting advantage for us.”

How employers and employees can find that balance

Now that we’ve heard from Benitez on the ideation, the process, and the progress, what final tips does he have to share for employers looking to possibly implement a four-day workweek?

Firstly, he emphasises the importance of distinguishing essential work from non-essential work. Team meetings, for example, raise the question – does the entire team need to be present in this meeting? What's the purpose of the meeting?

Increasing judgment about what's important and what's not is key to finding work-life balance, he affirms.

The second key factor would be pushing back against workplace norms that require employees to be constantly available. Undeniably, there's an expectation that employees should be available all around the clock, including at night and on weekends. To tackle this, the team came together to ask – can we proactively co create norms and expectations with our partners? What this meant was, instead of telling partners that they will only respond to their late emails the following work day, they worked to co-create ways to collaborate from Mondays through to Thursdays, so that late-night phone calls and weekend meetings could be avoided.

“So it’s basically saying — ‘let's be as effective as we possibly can during those four days, because I'm not going to be around on Friday’.”

Rounding up the conversation, Benitez shares a peek into how his personal journey at Uncharted – having joined the company in the spring of 2012 as an unpaid intern — has helped his growth as a leader.

"When I started early on as an intern, in my early first couple of months, I was really trusted by our team. I noticed that when I'm trusted, I'm smarter and more capable. When I'm not trusted - when I'm undermined - I'm actually dumber.

“There's this powerful thing - when you trust people, they bring out their best selves. That’s what happened to me personally.”

Leading with trust is evidently one way to put everybody to be in a place of personal power, and bring their best selves to work.

An excerpt of this article first appeared in the Q1 edition of Human Resources Online's Southeast Asia e-magazine. View a copy of the e-magazine here, where you'll find power-packed features and interviews with leaders from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, the US, and more!

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Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region! 

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