By Charlie Metcalfe
“In answer to the many rumors that have been going around the plants, I think I had better start out by saying—yes, we are going to reduce our work schedule,” Bill Hewlett wrote in the July 1970 edition of Watt’s Current, Hewlett Packard’s company newsletter. The IT company’s CEO and cofounder then revealed that the company would be enforcing a “nine-day fortnight,” with employees getting one day off every other week. Crucially, the new schedule would come with a 10% pay cut.
Hewlett Packard had fallen upon hard times, and the progressive nine-day fortnight working schedule appealed to its CEO more than the prospect of laying off 10% of his staff. Over five decades later, economic hardship has forced another progressive CEO to consider the nine-day fortnight. This time, though, his employees will be keeping their salaries.
British tech recruiting company Otta announced an eight-month trial of the nine-day fortnight for its staff at the beginning of February. Sam Franklin, cofounder and CEO, says he and the senior leadership team felt unable to offer significant pay raises to their staff due to high inflation. Instead, they chose to give staff an extra day off every two weeks—at full pay.
The four-day workweek has gotten substantial buzz, especially recently, with the release of data from the world’s largest trial of the model, which included some 3,300 British workers, 71% of whom reported being less burned out, with 48% saying their job satisfaction had increased. Earlier results from smaller tests has also shown positive results. But not every company feels ready to function with a prospective 20% reduction in working hours. Otta is among the small group of companies worldwide adopting the nine-day fortnight schedule, hoping to achieve some of the benefits of a four-day workweek.
Franklin says that, as a small and agile company, he saw no risk in trialing it. “We experiment a lot with everything: our product, our policies, our benefits,” he says. “And so it felt quite natural to say ‘hey, let’s give this a go.’” Franklin hopes the policy will encourage employees to become more efficient. And to ensure such an outcome, some companies operating the nine-day fortnight are also introducing “deep work” days when meetings are forbidden. It also offers a good compromise from which Otta might later progress to a four-day week.
Even for companies that haven’t considered four-day weeks, nine-day fortnights might work best in the long term anyway. Figures, a software company based in Paris, had been trying out a four-day week up until about six months ago. Being almost completely remote, staff would convene once a month in Paris for a few days. Along with the four-day working week, Figures’s leadership team realized employees were losing too much productive working time. Figures decided to introduce a nine-day fortnight instead.
According to Pierre Lallinec, a data analyst at Figures, some teams had been able to exploit the four-day week more than others. The tech team he works on, for example, does not depend on clients. Sales employees do, and often found themselves sacrificing their days off to cater to clients’ requests. He says the nine-day fortnight has made it easier for his colleagues to claim their long weekends. Lallinec, although initially disappointed at the loss of the extra day, says he now feels more productive anyway. “To be honest, four days goes really fast,” he says.
Laura Giurge, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, says companies are likely adopting progressive working policies like the nine-day fortnight with an eye toward retention and recruitment, as employees are still looking for flexibility from their jobs in the aftermath of the pandemic. “It’s going to be hard to attract talent if you’re not offering some flexibility, moving with the trends that we’ve been seeing post-COVID,” she says. London-based SaaS company CharlieHR found that more than a third of its job candidates referred to its nine-day fortnight schedule as one of their top three reasons for applying.
CloudCannon, a SaaS company spread across New Zealand and the US, received more applications, and from better quality candidates, when it introduced a nine-day fortnight, according to Chief Revenue Officer Christopher Wingate. He now sees the schedule as an important edge on competitors. “If you had the choice to get the same pay, same amount of vacation hours, but it’s four days versus five, which job would you choose?” he says.
Wingate encouraged the company’s leadership team to adopt the policy at the beginning of 2022, having seen “something magical” in the three-day weekend. At first, the company enacted the policy as a trial (although Wingate admits that it’s a difficult policy to reverse.) To ensure clients received week-round communications, those based in the US worked from Monday to Thursday, while those in New Zealand worked from Tuesday to Friday. Managers scrutinized every meeting and encouraged employees to become intentional about their work.
By the end of the year, Wingate says every employee felt more motivated and happier. The company’s performance had also remained the same, so its leadership team decided to transition to the four-day week every week. It retained the lessons it learned from its nine-day fortnight by increasing the time between regular meetings. Weekly meetings became fortnightly, fortnightly meetings became monthly.
Giurge advises that companies limit their nine-day fortnight trials to small randomized groups of employees. They should then conduct frequent surveys to measure variables like productivity, stress, and happiness. Once results prove positive, they can expand the policy to the rest of their employees. Far too often, she says, business leaders follow their intuition. A scientific approach would be much more effective.
For company’s looking into it, the nine-day fortnight remains somewhat of a bet. Twenty percent of CharlieHR’s team leaders registered a reduction in productivity while operating on a nine-day fortnight. None reported an increase. This would be unacceptable to Otta’s Franklin, who says that performance would need to remain the same for him to continue the policy after the company’s trial ends in September.
Despite the benefits he’s seen from the nine-day fortnight, Wingate is keen to impress that CloudCannon employees are privileged to benefit from these progressive working policies. Organizations operating in industries that trade time in direct proportion to money might struggle to adopt a nine-day fortnight without damaging performance. “We have a revenue and business model that allows us to do this,” Wingate says. “We definitely recognize that this isn’t possible for everyone.”