The Focus Course

What Is the Ideal Structure for Your Work Week?

This is a guest post written by Chris Bowler.

The structure of our time at work has been talked about a lot in the last 5–10 years.

As the internet enabled the rise of remote work and distributed teams, we started to ask questions about our typical, expected, current ways of working. One specific question has been whether the amount of time for a week should remain as it has for the past century.

As companies in the SaaS (Software as a Solution) and design world asked these questions, some have come to the realization that 40 hours does not necessarily equate to the best end results. Others still buy into the idea of hustle, of working as many hours as physically possible each week. Simply because investors require a return on their investment and the clock is running (and the investors are not afraid to back teams making competing products).

So what is the best way for a team (small or large) to structure their week?

The answer is… it depends.

How many hours?

Dave Martin from Help Scout gives some tips for keeping things to their 40 hours when everything feels urgent. For people in our industry, especially start ups, that’s an important message. There are too many places putting the pressure on to work up in the range of 60 hours per week. There’s enough research out there now to make a strong argument that this is a detrimental approach — you’ll produce worse results rather accomplishing more. Even if some teams achieve success over the short term, our businesses should support us living a successful life, so we must measure the different approaches over the long term.

Mikael Cho from Crew takes it further and says that it’s time to get rid of the 40 hour work week. The de facto norm is a holdover from another time, when work was structured in different ways with people doing vastly different things. And while I agree with him in a sense, this is not the reality for some industries. For knowledge workers, that’s great. For tradespeople, not as much.

Some careers are seasonal; you’ll work more than 40 hours a week in some months, then no work at all for others. And some trades provide services in emergency situations and, as a result, some weeks will end up being longer. As long as it’s not the norm and workers are compensated, this is not necessarily an evil.

But for many of us, is the century old practice of putting in a solid 40 hours a good one? The team at Basecamp has experimented in this area and settled into the rhythm of 40 hour work weeks for most of the year, then switch to 4 day work weeks over the summer months (32 hour work week). Other teams have since followed suit and seem to do all right.

What part of the day?

In his post, Mikael addresses a few more related points; this discussion is not merely about the total number of hours. If we’re going to consider changes, then we should also answer the question of what hours of each day make the sense. Is 8–4 or 9–5 the best time for everyone? And do they have to be consecutive hours, or does it ok to break your hours into chunks?

We all have different tendencies, different ideal work conditions, and different cadences to our day. While I may get my best work done before 8am, some of my friends really hit their stride around 11pm. It makes a lot of sense to construct an environment that allows workers to create the routines and daily structure that fits their creative rhythm.

As well, it may not make as much sense to work 8 hours straight through. Personally, I find myself struggling to focus or be creative from 11am to 2pm. I’m often better off getting away from the desk, working my body instead of my mind, or having a nap. Many modern flexible work environments have made this a reality for us.

The bigger picture

My opinion? Well, I certainly value that we’re blessed in this day and age to ask these questions. In most cases, our parents and grandparents were not having this type of discussion.

Overall, I also enjoy the flexibility and freedom provided by my employer, Wildbit. We’re firm on no more than 40 hours, but if you get your best work done in 32 hours and the remaining 8 would just be filler, no one will complain. In fact, I feel more driven to do my best because of the grace I’ve been given to guide my own efforts.

This goes beyond the week as well. If we’re going to examine how we work (and how much), what about the months over the year? How many weeks each year? More people are trying different ideas in this regard as well. For example, Shawn and Co recently shared their experimentation with an 8 week cycle and regular sabbaticals.

These types of questions lead to the value of work itself. Why do we work at all? As Shawn mentioned in the article above, his team is not trying a new schedule simply to have an easier life. There’s a bigger purpose:

My expectation with this new approach to scheduling is that it will increase our focus, productivity, and quality of work produced while also increasing overall quality of life.

Work to live, right? Not the other way around. Never the other way around. Natalie Nagele, one of the co-founders of Wildbit put it well when answering the question of the purpose of a company:

I believe a company’s only purpose is to provide for its people to live a fulfilling life. This means a very good living financially, a safe environment to be free and grow, and a balance of work to enable time for the important stuff. If the key to happiness is the people around you, shouldn’t your job be a catalyst to enabling the best relationships in your life?

That “balance of work” is key. A full life is not one that is only full of work.

The key to structuring our work weeks is that fullness of life. If I want to take Thursday morning to read to the kids in my son’s kindergarten class, my work day can fluctuate to accommodate that. This is a blessing, pure and simple.

What is the best way for you to mix work and life? It’s a question that deserves some time!

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