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Ukrainian engineer moves team to a four-day work week, maintaining the same duties and salaries. We explain the outcome

Alexey Tokar has been working in the IT industry for 17 years. Until 2021, he was Software Engineering Manager at the US company FORM with an 80-strong engineering department based in Kyiv. In 2019, as an experiment, Alexey decided to shift one team to a 4-day work week. Today, the entire engineering department of the company works according to this schedule.

Tokar spoke about his experience in an interview with DOU. AIN.UA selected the key points.

Alexey Tokar. Photo: DOU

Alexey started his career at FORM as a development manager, and a year and a half later, he became the head of the entire engineering department. He was responsible for the system’s stability, personnel development, and interaction in his department and the company. Managers were constantly interested in labor productivity. At some point, an engineer’s assessment was reduced to the ratio of the planned volume of work to the actual completed work.

“It is difficult to calculate how many hours an engineer spends developing. One cannot say that an engineer continuously benefits the company from 9 am to 6 pm. On the other hand, it is not always possible to switch to the “that’s it, no more work and no more decisions” mode when you come home. Sometimes ideas come up in the shower in the evening or while brushing your teeth in the morning. Accordingly, this is also working time”, says Alexey. 

Based on these thoughts, Tokar suggested introducing a 4-day work week as an experiment. For that, he chose one team that showed a more or less stable and predictable result and decided to try to improve it even more.

The essence of the experiment

The idea was this: the team has two weeks of development; if it completes all the tasks during the next two weeks, it will receive two additional days off. If the team again fulfills the planned volume together with the extra days off, they receive two more days off for the next two weeks. And if it does not have time to cope with the tasks, they go back to a 5-day work week for the next two weeks. 

At the same time, the salary of employees does not change.

The outcome

The experiment began in July 2019 — it was supposed to last three months. If during this time Alexey sees that the team does not burn out and the productivity increases — a 4-day work week is introduced in other teams of the engineering department.

“At first, it was painful: in the first two months, the team received only two weeks with additional days off. The rest of the time, something did not work out – the employees did not have time to handle the assigned tasks fully. The result is work in the evenings and sometimes on weekends. Even when the specialists had a rest on Friday, they continued to work to be in time,” says Tokar.

In the third month, people adapted and worked a 4-day work week for almost a month. They liked the new schedule. The specialists performed the same amount of work they did during a 5-day work week, while the predictability of the result increased by 10%: if earlier the team could guarantee the result by 80-90%, with the 4-day work week, these indicators increased to 92-95%.

The new schedule became the motivation, followed by all other necessary changes. The most challenging part of the move was to set up interaction within the teams. When employees began to focus on the team rather than individual results, they started to change processes for the team rather than individual work. As a result, we got remarkable results.

“It has become much easier and faster to scale, hire new development teams and get results from them. If earlier onboarding of teams took six months, after switching to a 4-day work week, it was reduced to one and a half months, says Alexey.

Another indirect effect is that the number of bugs in production has decreased, and the predictability of release cycles has increased. We worked on these problems for a long time, and the experiment with the schedule helped solve them and led to an excellent result.”

Since November 2019, Alexey has moved four other engineering teams involved in product development to a 4-day work week. 

The problems faced

All teams faced overtime. Often, some people had to work on one of the extra weekends because they didn’t have time to complete all tasks. Others finished pending tasks on Saturdays and Sundays. This negatively affected such employees, who were outraged because of working on weekends, while the rest were relaxing.

The move was most painful for the most responsible employees. Team leads worked on Fridays to have time to close tasks in the 8-day sprint and thus guarantee the next two days off. Over time, everyone has adapted.

“The move to a 4-day work week helped fine-tune the work within the teams: the guys realized where the problems were and could to fix them,” says Alexey.

How the schedule changed as a result

Initially, the concept was as follows: if the employees perform the declared amount of work, they choose any two days off. The guys experimented by choosing, for example, Friday or Monday of the following week as days off – to have four days off in a row. They also tried to have Wednesday off to rest in the middle of the week, but in the end, all the teams decided that the perfect option was to get Friday off and have three days off in a week.

The employees began asking each other, “Did you earn a Friday?” or “What did you do for a Friday?” So “Fridays” became part of the company culture.

Initially, the concept was as follows: if the employees perform the declared amount of work, they choose any two days off. The guys experimented by choosing, for example, Friday or Monday of the following week as days off – to have four days off in a row. They also tried to have Wednesday off to rest in the middle of the week, but in the end, all the teams decided that the perfect option was to get Friday off and have three days off in a week.

The employees began asking each other, “Did you earn a Friday?” or “What did you do for a Friday?” So “Fridays” became part of the company culture.

Implementing the new working rules in the engineering teams that deal with support and infrastructure was more difficult. They interact directly with users and can’t refuse to provide services on Fridays. Therefore, another model was chosen for them: one person was on duty on an extra day off, and everyone else worked for four days. Each time the duty officer in the team changed.

So, the main change in the company was that Fridays became days without meetings. Even if some teams occasionally do not meet deadlines and work five days a week, they still do not have Friday meetings.

A fatigued engineer is a bad engineer

When a 4-day schedule was implemented, the rest of the engineering teams started wondering how else the process could be optimized. If employees work four days a week and deliver a 100% result, maybe if they worked five days a week, they could get 120%?

The financial management asked why we continue to pay the employees the way we used to when they work 20% less.

“We had to negotiate and explain that a fatigued engineer is a bad engineer, that the burned-out employees wouldn’t produce results. After about a year, top management stopped asking such questions, and for the last year, we have been working for four days a week,” Alexey recalls.

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