A reflection from Studio Lead and CEO Hannah Nicklin on moving Die Gute Fabrik to a 4-day week.
In Q1 of 2020 I moved Die Gute Fabrik to a 4-day week. I came on board as CEO and Studio Lead over a number of months in early 2019, and at that time I had to pick up a lot of moving parts to ship Mutazione, so it was a time for learning rather than change. But moving to our next project gave me a unique opportunity to re-think how we work, and to take care to carefully plan and revise our processes so they were more humane, more accessible, and more welcoming to marginalised folks. Part of that included introducing a 4-day week.
This is not an article advocating for a 4-day week's benefits - rather explaining how we did it. There are many articles and experiments with much larger sample sizes and more robust methodologies which you can turn to for that*. And our specific form as a studio with only the board + me as the MVP (minimum viable) team between projects meant that actually a new project means a new constellation of collaborators - so comparing before and after isn't something we could do rigorously anyway.
* Try this experiment using 1% of Iceland's workforce, or this report which shows that it can also reduce environmental impact. There's also NZ firm Perpetual Guardians collaboration with academics to evaluate their turn to a 4-day week here - this is the most recent large scale study, I believe.
I'm writing this article, instead, because I was really surprised to read someone on Twitter post the question 'but how did you do it?' - it never occurred to me that it required anything but just a little re-inventive thinking. But then I come from a process-driven art background, where at the beginning of every project you ask the question 'what's the best way to make this thing'. Moving to a 4-day week was just a question of 'how do we re-shape the company and practices to support this?' But there are some questions it turns out, and because I do think that it's been excellent for us, I want to share what our answers were to these questions. They're not even all the best answers, I'm sure! But maybe - for those of you in a small-scale company - they will help.
The Vital Statistics
One of the reasons I don’t think you can use us for a case study of happiness or productivity is because as said above, we don’t have a ‘before’ comparison. As well as being a new project with a new constellation of collaborators, our move to a 4-day week after a couple of months suddenly also coincided with COVID, and a planned (pre-COVID) transition to a full-remote workplace (I wanted more flexibility to hire diverse global talent, and I don't think mixed-remote/local workplaces work). So for you to draw the most useful conclusions from how my thoughts relate to your workplace, I thought it would be useful to lay out the material conditions for our team.
- Co-owned by a board of 3 directors, the original founders, only one of whom works day to day.
- I'm the Studio Lead & CEO and only other base-level staff member.
- At the time we made this transition we had 2 full time (me and co-owner) and 1 part time employee. And no contractors.
- I can't be super explicit about our funding past or present because of NDAs, which is a shame because it's obviously relevant. What I can say is that we're funded on a project-basis so the company shrinks and grows per project. When I started the move to a 4-day week we were 'in between' projects, and our new project wasn't funded. We secured external funding for a prototype during this time. We also have members of the board work 'in kind' as owner investment which supplements our work.
- Our funding right now is private - not public - money. But we have also run R&D and various other parts of past projects on public money. That's both a luxury of a good public funding sector, but also our being able to parlay public investment into private investment (then you pay them taxes and they're happy) puts us in the advantageous position of not having to adhere to any limits connected to public money - for example arts and film public funding in Denmark and the UK both limit the amount you can pay people you work with to some idea of 'decorum' around the spending of public money. I'm not going to get too far into funding here because that's not what it's about, you just need to understand that it's all very complicated - working across so many different economies of scale and borders and sources of money. And our situation right now is that we work on project-based private funding.
- To be explicit: project-based funding and in-between project transition is important and relevant because it allowed me to write a new project budget featuring the changes I've made - from the flat rate, to scoping work for a 4-day week. Every project I get a 'do-over' to better think through and build evidence for running the company better, so I can make that argument for the budget to a funder. Not all industries are like that!
- Because we work fully remotely many of our collaborators are contractors (as employment across borders is beyond the resources of our small org.)
- We transitioned in between projects so were able to scope and build the new project structure and personnel plans around a 4-day week.
- This means we hire people to a 4-day week.
- The company is now approx 15-20 people, depending how and when in this project you count.
- We make video games - cross border online comms is pretty common, as are staggered comms over timezones. We have some external comms with funders, platforms, and consultants, and sometimes I teach and mentor - but pretty much on a regular basis I am the only person daily in contact with folks outside the company.
In order to understand what people might want to know about how we did it, I posed the question on Twitter, so bear that in mind when it comes to the kinds of questions I'm answering.
Okay, let's get to it.
Why did you do it?
Honestly, many people talk about the production benefits - happier and more balanced workers who (it's proven) are as productive as over a 5 day week, but with more goodwill and wellbeing, etc. But I just personally believe in radical workplace reform. Die Gute Fabrik right now doesn't have much room with regards to some radical practices in decision making (although in that case KO_OP are a great example to look to), but where I can, I've tried to make our workplace more humane, and the time our workers spend labouring for others better organised. Not because it makes the work better, but as it doesn't make it worse, and it does make our lives better, it's kind of a no-brainer to me.
This wasn't the only change I made - I also introduced a 'flat rate' - everyone in the company is paid the same (including me - and featuring some maths to turn it from employee wage in Denmark to contractor wage for outside of Denmark), 1 flat rate for your first year with us, and then a step up to a slightly higher rate after a year, to encourage people to grow with us. It's rare a project will last longer than 3 years or so, so I'll revisit those rates again next project. I also wrote a handbook with a bunch of revised cultural stuff & values which is agreed to as part of signing a contract with us, and introduced some trainee and entry level positions to the project plan.
And finally I introduced a 'Success Pool' (a more egalitarian form of profit share, where anyone working on the game for 6 months or more (if you work part time that still counts - and we use that month number as it's the Danish trial period length) is entered into a pool for an equal share of 20% of the game's profits) - the equal share is important to me as a writer, who has rarely ever even been offered rev shares, coming in later, or not being even considered a 'real' dev. No one takes a hit on their immediate rates as an 'advance' on those monies either.
All of which is to say - this is the best way I could see to run a company in humane a way as possible in alignment with my beliefs around labour. And it's not the only gesture I'm doing towards this.
How did you handle the transition?
We did the transition with a new project - starting from a skeleton crew of 2.5, so we didn’t have to deal with a transition for most people, this was super convenient because we then (as I touch on above) could plan our collaboration, process, and workflows together as we developed them. We wrapped our previous project, and then as we scaled down, we made the transition, and then as we scaled up again, we hired people to the 4-day week.
If I were transitioning with a full team, I might want to start with one Friday off a month, then every other Friday off, and build up to the full-whack, so everyone can acclimatise to what changes to mind-sets, workflows, and scoping were necessary.
Did you consult your team?
As I mention above, the team at the moment of transition was very small, I chatted with everyone and did float other options - a research day every week, but every time I said that, it really didn't sit well with me, because to me 'research' can be a long walk, or doing the laundry - it's the stuff I do so that at other times I can sit down and concentrate.
Did you consider shorter days instead - 5*6h?
Part of my handbook rewrite was a clear statement that we don't expect a full work day to always be 8 hours including lunch. When creative coding, writing, thinking, working, doing a string of video meetings - sometimes 5 or 6 hours is the limit of your tolerance. So technically we do 4 * 6-8h. Contractors bill by half or quarter days but I don't make anyone keep time. And anyway in Denmark it's very common for people with kids to work 9-3:30 until school pick up. Sure for people already on strict 5*8, a 5*6 week could be a big improvement, but we already had that. And still maintain that a 6 hour day is okay. But a shorter day is a vastly different thing to a not work day to me personally, and that's the model I wanted us to work to. I've heard some people describe a 4-day week as 4*10h days and really, no, you're not doing that right.
How do you square it with a country set to a 5 day week?
We do have to do some things to communicate to the Danish government about our employees to make sure everyone receives the correct benefits and status to the state. For us 'full time' is 4-days per week, but for the filing of 'full time' in systems built for a 5-day week, we effectively pay everyone on the team to spend Fridays in concentrating on their wellbeing. This means their benefits and holiday time isn't treated oddly.
Did you change holiday?
The holiday you accrue as an employee (contractors can't accrue holiday across borders, and so their fee accounts for that using some clever maths) isn't changed. That means the 5 weeks paid holiday mandated by the Danish state actually just goes further - 25 days now covers just over 6 weeks, rather than 5. That seemed fair to me, and also saves a complicated argument with the state (I didn't know about the second half of that until about a year in, so I'm doubly glad I made this decision).
Why don't you let people pick their day off?
Our weekends are Friday - Sunday inclusive. Friday is not a work day for Die Gute Fabrik. Contractors can't work on Friday. We also have a 1:1 time off in lieu system so if for example I have to work a 5 day week in the run up to an external milestone, I can take that day 'back' by taking it off the next week. Which is a kind of psychological protective of that Friday.
We did briefly try letting people pick a day - but even on a tiny team it was the one thing we found very very quickly did not work. The second someone is working on a day it creates work for others. If you ask people not to communicate, it then creates a comms vacuum which is an issue moving forwards. I was asked on Twitter 'why not a midweek break' and honestly - maybe that would work for a different company who took a vote from their workers, or worked with a union rep on how to implement a 4-day week, but at this point, I'm in charge and I prefer to give more decompression time, than an 'interrupted' time. In the end, this formulation was my choice.
Although I suspect with a much larger team, perhaps whole teams could work in a staggered way - meaning that external partners are met on all days, and half of the teams work Mon-Thurs, and the other half Tues-Fri. But that wasn't something we needed to tackle. And I suspect you'd still have the comms problems.
How does it impact contractors?
Contractors can't work on Fridays if working with us, but also we adjusted their day rate to account for a 4-day week so they're also encouraged to not work on that day - their rate is the employee rate + holiday pay / worked days in a year on the basis of a 4-day week.
Do you pay the same?
This question astonished me! If you pay less for a 4-day week, you're not running a 4-day week, you're making everyone go part time. Yes we pay the same. Although technically we pay differently since I implemented the flat rate at the same time as the 4-day week - but no one took a pay cut in either process.
We also have some contractors and employees (about half) who work 2 or 3 day weeks, and are therefore 0.5/0.75 employees, or bill us for 2/3 days (if contractors), but on the same basis of a 4-day week calculation.
Don't some external people want to have meetings on Fridays?
Because of the kind of work we do, pretty much I am the only person regularly receiving emails and doing meetings with external folks. Our Creative Producer does some emails around recruitment, but I'm the only one daily meeting outside the company. Here's what I do:
- Don't arrange meetings on Fridays (it's fairly simple for us, when arranging meetings we don't offer Fridays, and it's rare anyone gives me only one day if they're arranging one)
- Have the fact the studio is 4 days a week in your email signature. Anyone corresponding with you will have a reminder that if emailing you on a Friday you won't respond to Monday.
- Be clear with partners and regular contacts that Friday isn't a work day (this is another way having a fixed rather than floating 3rd weekend day is important)
- Yes I do deal with emergencies, but as CEO/Studio Lead I consider that 'on call' a factor of the responsibilities of the job. Eventually I will vest in (when I can afford to) and that's the value of the 'above and beyond' I do sometimes do, as far as I'm concerned.
- In the extraordinary case Friday meetings are necessary, the 1:1 TOIL system accounts for it, you work an hour fewer the next week (or however long). I think the rest of the team have maybe in the past year had 3-4 Friday things? I've probably had about that myself.
- If you have deadlines which are 'End of Week' for external partners - deliver it on Thursday. If you wouldn't plan to deliver on a Saturday, don't plan for a Friday. No one ever minds getting a delivery a day early in their book, and for you - 'on time' is Thursday. That's it.
What about 'on call' people - community managers, bug fixes?
I read a well-meaning tweet a few months ago which said something along the lines of 'you might think you have a nice office that runs on a 4-day week but I promise that your community manager is working 24/7'. I get it, but I also think that it suffers from a lack of imagination (or the company it's subtweeting do). There are two concerns here: 24/7 parts of a development or production process for 'regular' workers, and 24/7 parts of the same for people like me who (will soon be) vested in and therefore receive greater value than an 'average' worker. For the latter - I consider monitoring our social media, some long weeks, etc., labour I do in exchange for the opportunity to vest. I'm building the company and that's separate to the project - on which every other member of the team is employed/contracted. So far, I'm the only 24/7 person.
As for community mangers, or post-launch bug fixes, and the extra responsibilities of Leads like Katrin (Tech), or Char (Story), this hasn't come up for this project cycle yet, but I intend to introduce an 'on call' top-up to our flat rate to account for out of hours work post-launch. As for 'what about your community managers' who might need to attend quickly to something before it spirals out of control? The solution there is a combination of TOIL, and hiring two people to cover the week. It would cost us the same as one contractor working 7 days, but we hire two people, each for 4 days week max, and maybe on, say a 2 day pw minimum, and then they scale if needed, but they're never 'on call' every day. Then if they need more than their max, time off in lieu comes in to play.
I can't guarantee that I or others will never work overtime, but the TOIL system is the backstop there.
How do you make sure it doesn't affect your work output?
We don't formally track our individual productivity - just our project progress vis-a-vis our project planning. We might once we can resource a Project Manager but right now, we don't formally do so. So I can't tell you anything for certain. And also - I didn't do this to make us more productive, I did it to make our workplace more humane.
Here are some things I can tell you:
- It is absolutely one of the reasons I personally was able to maintain resilience during a COVID spent abroad, unable to see family, and only recently moved so I have few friends. There were weeks I had very shaky mental health, and a four day week enabled me to care for myself in a much more effective way.
- One day for chores and two days for leisure is beautiful and I want it for everyone.
Okay but more seriously - adaptations that we've made to our processes and workflows as we've built them to account for the 4-day week:
- Meetings need to be as efficient as possible. Under my watch we were always going to have a system of clear meeting agendas, purposes, note-taking etc., but in the context of a 4-day week you really need to invest in keeping meetings to time, and with materials for prep distributed ahead of time. Time where everyone is together is more valuable and you should treat it with respect. This also means making sure any prep is highlighted, that people do the prep, and that you make time for quieter team members to speak if they want.
- Some people will miss unstructured design time, so make dedicated time for that too. Some people don't need it and like to respond to design docs. For that reason we have 2h 'freeform' meetings before a feature sprint, where you can talk in any direction and hash things out in speech. This gets turned into a design doc so structured thinkers can prep and think quietly before an 'all hands' sprint prep meeting. There we have clear outcomes of a final design, and two follow ups with a proposal for the work, and a final task management meeting. Then weekly sprint check ins, etc. throughout.
- We don't have video-on calls. Honestly this isn't a 4 day week thing, but a general resilience thing - when you want to be as efficient as possible you don't want to people who feel pressure because of either patriarchy or dysphoria to tend to their appearances disproportionately to others on the team. It's also proven that video-on calls are more costly wrt energy - video-off calls are proven to reduce exhaustion and boost engagement, especially for gender marginalised folks and new comers.
- Social events are super necessary as part of a remote workplace but can feel more pressured in a 4 day week. It requires management to acknowledge that building relationships with your co-workers is work. We've got quite firm weekly plans for them.
- We do need to plan and scope realistically, but that's a part of any good production process, I hope!
- We use a system called Spock - integrated into Slack - to track worked days, holiday, sickness and TOIL which has adapted fine to a 4 day week. I didn't do that wizardry, but I def know it's possible.
- Have at least one meeting-free day per week, to also mark out that deep concentration time.
How can I advocate for this in my company?
This was in many ways easy for me to implement because I was already convinced, and I have a very supportive board. So really, I'm the boss, and so I was allowed to make it up. If there was a challenge, I worked out a solution.
For those advocating for this in their own workplaces, I can recommend collective bargaining: union membership - and getting your workplace to unionise - can give you access to the power of a collective, and to a union rep who can negotiate on your behalf. If you want resources to 'prove' it, the studies I linked at the beginning were pretty good, and I've also since discovered 4dayweek.io - I can't personally vouch for them, but they'd be a great place to find software companies already running 4-day weeks - maybe you can intro your leadership team to those companies to ask more about transition!
As I mentioned at the top of this post, I haven't done a survey of the team, or any meaningful work tracking - so I can't tell you in a quantitive way (or from a personal perspective for anyone other than me) that a 4-day work week definitely made us more productive. This past year is actually probably is the most productive and effective the company has ever been - but that had been for a number of reasons; change of leadership ethos, hiring people, production models, full rather than part remote, etc.
I hope I've answered the common questions I had about 'how I did it'. And honestly, there have been enough studies now saying it's better for people and at worst doesn't make productivity less. The productivity arguments aren't of interest to me, but if you want them - they're out there. At this point the reason we're still all working 5 days a week is mostly inertia.
Don't get me wrong - it's a big load of inertia, and I'm not dismissing the work of culture shift. It's taken me 2 years to shift the culture of our company and I have been extremely empowered by the co-owners, and benefitted from a company model which is scale-down scale-up (not in itself great unless you have a social system which supports a mobile labour force - FYI Denmark pays ~90% of your previous wage when you're unemployed using the A KASSE system).
But I hope that through going through these 2 or so years of culture change, and ~1.5 years of a 4-day week, I have faced down most of the challenges it brings, and come up with humane and worker-centric solutions to them. Perhaps some of my solutions wouldn't suit your workplace, but it doesn't mean there aren't solutions.
The last challenge will be shipping a game on this system. I try and make sure that when the system breaks, it breaks on me first. That's what CEO/Studio Lead is to me. But on-time, on-budget, and on-spec will provide different challenges with a 4-day week. Most of all I will keep a keen eye on scope, make decisions on cuts where they're needed, build systems for people to communicate well, and track production process for failures as well as success. Where I fail, well, failing into a 5 day week is better than failing into a 6 day one. I will continue to watch, analyse, and improve, with the support of my excellent board, and brilliant co-workers. I'm doing my best.
(P.S. since I drafted this, but before I published it, another indie studio Young Horses announced their transition to a 4-day week! Stoked for them.)