Here's why a four-day week works for us

Embracing the four day week not only raises productivity but also vastly improves workers’ health and wellbeing, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler
Here's why a four-day week works for us

Codema staff in the agency's offices in Temple Bar. Clockwise from left; Shannen Kealy, Valentyna Kuch-Denysenko, John O'Shea Maria Diaz, Neil O'Leary, Edel Giltenane, Claire Donoghue and Suzanne Fitzpatrick. Photograph Moya Nolan

In the run up to Christmas last year, media outlets across Ireland were abuzz with the news that a four-day working week experiment had been a “resounding success”.

Office parties from Dingle to Drogheda were full of chatter about this remarkable six-month trial and its amazing results. Increased productivity levels, gains in life satisfaction, a better work-life balance and improved sleep were just some of the positive outcomes.

Perhaps the strongest testimony to the trial’s success is that all 12 participating companies and organisations are continuing with the policy long-term. Dublin based non-profit Codema is one.

“Work-life balance was always an important part of our work culture,” says HR and Operations Manager, Edel Giltenane. “There was always flexibility around family and even before the pandemic, working from home was an option once a week.”

Codema works with local authorities to help lower their carbon emissions and use energy efficiently. As Edel points out, much of their “work involves looking at evidence based solutions” so in many ways they were the perfect fit for a trial that examined how they worked.

The team embraced the challenge. Before they began, they received mentoring and training from Four-Day Week Ireland and any questions that arose were quickly dealt with. Edel feels that Codema’s “open culture” was critical to the success of the programme. Before the trial, the team held workshops that allowed staff to brainstorm ideas and come up with suggestions around timesaving and productivity.

“The major areas that we looked at were meetings and emails,” says Edel. “We work with the four Dublin councils and our team would often travel out and have face-to-face meetings with the local authorities. It’s important to go out and meet people but not all meetings need to be in person. So managing that was one aspect. Then we made sure that people who were at meetings really needed to be there and managing the meetings themselves was another element; sticking to an agenda, keeping them tight and having a chair.

“We also took on productivity management training and learnt about how long it takes you to get back into your work after a distraction. That fed into managing emails. Knowing that emails don’t have to be answered immediately and managing that in a manner that suits you is critical to saving time.”

It was, on the face of it at least, all pretty simple but tracking outcomes and monitoring staff was integral to the project’s success. While the idea of a four-day week sounds great, to some it just sounds like pressure.

Throughout the six months, Codema employees were surveyed by the programme organisers, University College Dublin and Boston College. The non-profit also carried out research of their own and set up mechanisms to help employees who might have been struggling. Those mechanisms have yet to be utilised.

“My initial reaction was a bit of fear,” says Office Manager, Claire Donoghue. “I really didn’t know how I was going to get my work done in four days. It was difficult putting the work down on Friday. But as I scheduled more and better and cut out unnecessary tasks or found better or different ways of doing them, it became easier. It worked itself out.”

Now, almost a year into the four-day-week, Claire sees a dramatic difference in her life. She has more time for appointments, more time for exercise and she even has time to do something she never did before: to cook.

“I always had the excuse of not having time,” she says. “Now I have that extra day, I batch cook and it’s saved me a fortune because I have lunch and dinner sorted for the week. I’m so much happier now and much less stressed. I’m healthier and I’ve actually had less sick days than other years.”

 Donna Gartland, CEO of Codema. Photograph Moya Nolan
Donna Gartland, CEO of Codema. Photograph Moya Nolan

Neil O’Leary, an Energy Engineer with the company, finds that working over the shorter period suits him better.

“It doesn’t come without its challenges but I think it’s great,” says the Cork native. “The balance of the week is a lot better. You have four days where you are probably working at a higher intensity but come the weekend, you have more time to recharge.”

For the 29-year-old that recharging usually involves careering down the side of a Wicklow mountain on a bike or surfing the waves off the West Coast. Having that extra day allows him to get ahead of that Friday exodus from the capital and thoroughly indulge his passions.

Given her role is all about planning and managing everyone else’s time, you would think Project Manager, Shannen Healy, had it particularly tough.

“You’d be surprised,” says the 28-year-old from Carrigaline. “I think there were surveys done that found a huge amount of the work day is spent faffing about. We got a good bit of training beforehand on how to get rid of distractions, manage your time and maximise efficiency and you just get used to it. I would encourage any employer to give it a try.

“We have increased our productivity. I think when you’re working four days, you’re more concentrated. You don’t want something hanging over you for three days, so you’re going to make sure you get it done before the weekend kicks in.”

Like any organisation worth its salt, there are periods of the year when the team at Codema simply needs to put that extra bit of shoulder to the wheel.

“During very busy periods, we will work the Friday and sometimes even Saturday,” says Shannen. “When there are events like the Dublin Climate Action Week in September, we are very busy. But that’s the same as any job where you might be working a Saturday or working in the evening to meet deadlines. Nine times out of ten we work the four days.”

The company sees no reason to go back to five and for CEO, Donna Gartland, there are very good reasons for that.

“Because we are all engineers, we spend our time looking for efficiencies,” she says. “But we hadn’t looked for efficiencies in how we worked. This trial gave us the excuse to do that. In the not-for-profit sector, the values of the company are often very much aligned with the values of the people that work there.

“For many it’s a passion project and that in turn leaves them susceptible to burn out. I think the four-day week project is specifically relevant to the type of staff we have in this sector. The better they are in their mindset, the more positive energy they have to bring to the office.

“So the idea of reducing the working week by 20% and using that time for home life and family rather than wasting it on emails and meetings was good for everyone. We took an efficiency approach to it. There were lots of lessons learned. It’s a process and you have to keep going back and checking because you can fall into old habits easily. We are planning more training around it this year.”

And that’s not all that’s planned for 2023. Over the next 12 months, Codema are hoping to add to their ranks.

“We are looking at hiring seven new people this year,” says Donna. “Competition is fierce around that, so we have to look at new ways of attracting new staff as well as protecting current staff.”

The promise of a four-day week is certainly enticing and judging by the atmosphere in this office, Codema will have no trouble filling the roles.

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