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Inside a company that works a 4-day week

Working four days a week instead of five often increases productivity, and more companies are trying it

Staffers at online education tech startup Treehouse, which works four days a week.

It’s Thursday at the online education tech company Treehouse in Portland, Oregon. For most companies, this doesn’t mean anything special. But at Treehouse, Thursdays are Fridays: The company has a four-day workweek. Ryan Carson, CEO and a co-founder of Treehouse, says that he and his wife, Gill, decided to work four-day weeks while launching a tech company in 2004. When they began Treehouse in 2006, he decided to keep the tradition.

“I thought, ‘If everyone says you can’t work less, let’s just prove them wrong,’” he said. “Let’s just do it out of spite. Let’s just not work Fridays and see if it’s possible.” Turns out, it is. Carson says he has found a huge correlation between working less and being more efficient.

“When you look at it, it makes sense. If you think, ‘Hey, if I constrain myself enough to get what I need done and I’m not going to meetings all the time and relaxing and wasting time’ … we find, yes, there’s a huge increase in productivity.”

What Carson found jibes with a larger trend. Anna Cootes, head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation in London wrote a report on working fewer hours. “We do know that people who work shorter hours are more productive hour for hour, so that’s good for the economy,” she says. “We know that a workforce on shorter hours with flexible arrangements tends to be happier, more loyal and stable. You tend to have more women in the workforce, and all those things tend to be good for the business bottom line,” she said.

The United States has the well-deserved reputation of being a nation of workaholics. We work more hours than Canadian, British and French workers. And get this: We work a whopping 42 days more than Germans each year. While Americans are among the world’s most productive workers, more hours does not necessarily mean more productivity.

I get some angry CEOs that accuse us of stealing their people. But what they don’t realize is, we treat people like humans here.

Ryan Carson

CEO and co-founder, Treehouse

Statistics from an OECD study on productivity in G-7 countries.

Countries that work fewer hours tend to have greater productivity per hour. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germans work much less than people in other countries, and yet they are some of the most productive, with a GDP per hour that is 30 percent higher than that of Italians or Japanese, who are among the hardest working in the G-7.

“What that tells you is you cannot predict that an economy is going to be stronger because workers are working longer hours, and it’s likely that the economy will be just the same or stronger if workers are working shorter hours on average,” says Cootes.

But for Carson and Treehouse, there have been some unexpected benefits to the four-day workweek. For one, people take fewer sick days, leaving doctor and other appointments for Fridays. Carson says it’s a powerful recruiting tool. “I get some angry CEOs that accuse us of stealing their people,” he says. “But what they don’t realize is we treat people like humans here.”

Nationwide, 36 percent of employers allow at least some of their employees to have four-day workweeks. Usually that involves flexible hours during the summer on Fridays. “I think it has to come from the CEOs or executives or founders,” says Carson. “The trouble is, a lot of those folks like working.”

Several U.S. cities a few GM and Chrysler plants are experimenting with the four-day workweek in hopes it will save money in the long term. Manufacturing, construction and tech companies are more likely to work four-day, 10-hour weeks. But not Treehouse.

“We work four eight-hour days. We don’t work four 10s. We’re not trying to trick anybody,” says Carson.

Treehouse’s office has a casual air. People wear jeans and play pingpong, and Carson’s dog, a great Dane named Monty, is often on site lounging on the couch. It’s easy to think people are slacking. But the stakes at Treehouse are high.

“Sometimes I’ll spend Sunday evenings for about an hour just to figure out my schedule for the week to make sure I have everything,” says Yvette Jacquez, an employee at Treehouse. She has worked at the company for two years and says employees are held accountable for how they spend their days, and their productivity is tracked daily.

“We look at who is producing projects, who’s completing projects within a certain amount of time. There’s red flags that will be pulled out if you’re not pulling your weight in the company,” she said.

Carson agrees. “We have had to let people go. You do have to perform here.” He says his employees still get a full competitive salary plus benefits. His bottom line: Employees are efficient and happy, even if the company grows more slowly.

“I think short term, we probably have been hurt a little bit,” says Carson. “But we’re still growing at over 100 percent a year in revenue, so I’m OK with that. It seems good enough.”

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