Shifting dimensions

What one Dropbox team learned from trying a 4-day workweek


Published on October 28, 2020

The 4-day workweek isn’t a novel concept. In fact, it’s been piloted at companies like Shake Shack, Uniqlo, Microsoft Japan, and even as a nation-wide experiment in New Zealand as early as 2018. And many have had positive results. In Microsoft Japan’s case, the company claimed it boosted productivity by 40%. Shake Shake reported that recruitment, especially among women, spiked as a result. These are some sucessful examples of the 4-day workweek, but the recent dramatic change to remote work has spurred another wave of interest in rethinking the traditional Monday-to-Friday routine.

“The pandemic has created a moment for businesses to take stock and consider more radical reconstructions of the workplace,” said Andrew Barnes, author of “The 4 Day Week” and co-founder of the nonprofit 4 Day Week Global. “It is a time for experimentation and a reevaluation of what it means to be productive.”

Dropbox is reimagining work with a “virtual first” approach, where remote work will be the primary experience for employees. And in the last few months, the Corporate Media Collaboration Services (Corp MCS) team, which oversees video production and live event audio/visual support at Dropbox, has been piloting flexible work hours with a 4-day workweek.

In a Dropbox-sponsored research study conducted about productivity and focus, The Economist Intelligence Unit found that the most popular company-wide initiative to help employees transition to remote work was flexible work hours. Nizar Ahmed, who manages the Corp MCS team, came up with the flexible 4-day work week idea after assessing his team’s needs.

“Being a service-based group, it’s hard for people on my team to take a break like rest of the company,” says Ahmed. “With events and productions, questions always arise when things aren’t working properly. Putting in around 10 to 12 hour days for most of the team was starting to take a toll, even with coffee breaks and game nights. So I felt they needed a different type of way to decompress, relax, and work on things at their own pace. I wanted them to really focus on themselves and my goal was to mitigate any burnout in this unique time of shelter in place.”

Under the plan, team members are expected to work Monday through Thursday as usual with meetings and events, and Fridays are a flexible “on call” type of day, where team members are available if really needed. But on Fridays they can either take the entire day off if their work allows, take half a day off, catch up on work but take no meetings, or do whatever worked best for their individual schedules. The team has trialed this for the last few months, and they’ve shared some of what they’ve learned.

The 4-day workweek doesn’t work for everyone

One of the biggest takeaways is that one size doesn’t fit all. Success of a 4-day work week is very team, role, and even organization dependent. For example, at companies with more employees, people may have issues with scheduling meetings with cross-functional teams, and businesses that run on sales may have issues with customers trying to reach representatives.

Armando Armas, a video producer on the Corp MCS team, says he and his teammates who mostly work on video editing had overall positive reactions to trying this new schedule.

“The team was pretty stoked on it,” says Armas. “We were pretty intrigued and once we started implementing it, there was a lot of buy-in.”

Their team was mostly able to adapt to the 4-day workweek because their work didn’t depend on live events, which gave them more flexibility. Armas worked longer hours Monday through Thursday, but would take the afternoons on Fridays to either work on his own projects or completely unplug. But for Daniel Denham, who works on live events, this type of schedule didn’t suit his work.

“I think it’s just an inherent issue because what our team does is operate for the company, so I work closely with many other teams and unless they also adopted this model and changed the way they work, this 4-day workweek wouldn’t work,” says Denham.

Denham’s concern highlights one of the biggest challenges of adopting this type of work schedule—total buy-in. If only a few teams at an entire company are working the same four days, it makes it difficult and complicated to do cross-functional work. Denham says it’s important to make sure it’s the right fit for the team. You need to ask questions like, “what’s the type of work the team does,” and “can the majority of the team’s work be done remotely and asynchronously?”

The biggest benefits are flexibility and time to unwind

Workplace flexibility is critical for responding to changing circumstances and expectations. With a pandemic forcing many to work from home, the lines between personal and professional have become blurred. Workplace burnout has also been exacerbated due to work-from-home. A survey conducted by FlexJobs in partnership with Mental Health America reported that 75% of workers have experienced burnout, and 40% of those polled said it was a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

A four-day workweek is more than just a weekly day off. “I think it works well for working at home because it gives me the flexibility to manage my own timelines and scheduling with my stakeholders while also balancing my personal life and mental health,” says Armas. “It’s about setting your own schedules and finding what works for you so you can get the most out of your time.”

The trade-off of working longer days Monday through Thursday is that Armas has been able to work on pet projects, develop new skills, and find time to unwind.

“Taking at least some time off on Friday (even if it is a half day) allows your mind to reset a bit,” says Ahmed. “The goal is to build a less stressed, more productive team. Not only does it allow them to come back refreshed, which is helpful for figuring out how to approach an issue or task, it allows them to take the time to learn some thing new, go on a long walk, or just relax.”

It’s worth trying

While there are obvious challenges and trade-offs with the 4-day workweek, there’s a lot of potential reward. Less burnout means more productivity and engagement at work, and an easier time balancing personal life. With the new “virtual first” approach and a few months of the 4-day work week under their belt, the Corp MCS team will continue to evolve their flexible work week strategy to find what’s the most ideal for them. Their advice is for teams to try it for at least a few weeks and see what happens. 

“There’s no need to commit to it as a permanent long-term work solution,” says Ahmed. “But you can learn a lot about what works for you and your team and find ways to be efficient with your time, stay engaged with your work, and maintain overall well-being.”