Can a 4-Day Work Week Work?

Collectively, the founding team at Cockroach Labs has been involved in the early stages of nearly ten companies, covering the full spectrum of outcomes. And while a great culture will not guarantee a successful company, there’s no question that both the rides into outer space and the crash landings are respectively more fun and a lot less painful when a company is built on a foundation of trust, respect, balance, and of course friendship.

When Ben, Peter, and I first agreed we’d take the plunge and build another company, we were determined to make culture a founding priority instead of an afterthought. Even before we’d found office space, or incorporated, we drew up a list of steps we’d take to build a lasting cultural foundation — something we hoped would make Cockroach Labs a great place to work and, by extension, increase its chances of success.

Those cultural benefits and values are summarized on our website and run the gamut from flexible working hours, unlimited vacation, weekly team dinners, monthly offsites, twice-yearly company trips, and our version of a 4-day work week: “Free Fridays.”

But when we recently conducted an employee engagement survey, it became clear that Free Fridays were confusing. There was anxiety about using them for any purpose other than core job responsibilities. Would it look bad if you never made it to the office? Were non-CockroachDB side projects fair game? Was it necessary to let your manager know your plans?

Why Invest in Free Fridays?

To understand why we instituted them in the first place, consider what sort of product we’re building. CockroachDB requires sustained abstract thinking, the kind of work better facilitated by a clear and relaxed mind, rather than 14-hour work days and lots of caffeine. But the exigencies of a modern, bog standard workday – commutes, meetings, email overload, endless social media cues – make finding time to think expansively a wistful pipe dream.

Free Fridays are meant to be a new kind of day that breaks the simple dichotomy most of us have lived our entire lives. They’re neither strictly for working nor strictly the start of the weekend. Waking up on a Friday as an employee at Cockroach Labs should feel a lot more like that special Saturday morning realization that you don’t have to rush into the daily grind. Turn off the alarm Thursday night. Sleep in. Brew coffee and enjoy a lazy morning in a sunny kitchen. Spend time with the kids and walk them to school. Be there after school to watch soccer practice. See the doctor, get a haircut, run errands which are impossible to do on busy weekends. One of the greatest things about Free Fridays is you get to move through the normal world in an unconventional way.

But there’s more to it. The reality is that Cockroach Labs is a group of curious, very bright people with lots of ideas. Turns out many of us appreciate a chance to leisurely experiment, to build prototypes of functionality far off the product roadmap, and to approach high priority work from a more relaxed and expansive perspective.

Most people reading this are aware of Google’s 20% time policy, which was touted in the press, but became increasingly rare as the company grew. In the early days some pretty cool things came out of the policy, and we’d like to capture our share of those good outcomes. Free Fridays is a 20% time policy where the “when?” is fully specified: Fridays, all day. The “why?” has hopefully been answered in the preceding paragraphs. The “what?” is up to each of us individually, and there aren’t many wrong answers.

A few more points: don’t tell anyone you’re working from home or not coming in to run errands; just do it. Don’t answer emails unless you want to. Don’t hesitate to get on a plane Thursday night and ignore work all weekend. Do be creative, do work on what you imagine the next killer feature might be. Do embrace opportunities for greater balance and personal happiness.

We’re going to start a series of posts which cover activities we’ve collectively pursued on Free Fridays. You can follow the Free-Fridays tag here. We hope the format yields exciting and interesting results. We’ll also do quarterly surveys and assess how this benefit affects employee satisfaction. Free Fridays is an experiment, not something written in stone. If it doesn’t work or doesn’t scale, we may abandon it. We’re eleven months into it, and cautiously optimistic.

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