January 11, 2022
A consultancy working less than 40 hours a week – does that exist?
The concept of the four-day work week is gaining ground across the world and for good reasons. Implemented successfully, the four-day work week can increase productivity, increase employee satisfaction, reduce stress and sick-leave, and lead to higher employee engagement – heck, it’s even said to reduce the company’s carbon footprint. In this blog, we give some background to Nordic Sustainability’s decision to implement a four-day work week and ask founder Esben Lanthén a couple of questions on what work can look like in 2021.
In 2020, Nordic Sustainability made the decision to work towards working less. If “working towards working less” may sound like more work, it’s because it is. Any profound change to how a company approaches its projects requires copious efforts, a lot of democratically decided rules, and a lot of repetition of those rules. It’s a process and they’re still in the midst of it.
How Covid-19 kick-started the 4-day work week
While deciding to cut back on work hours might seem like a decision often made during chaotic times marked by too much overtime and big deadlines, the situation was actually quite the opposite. During the first Covid-19 lockdown, the team had been working part-time (three days on, two days off) as the majority of clients had, more or less, paused the ongoing engagements they had due to economic uncertainty owing to the restrictions.
Yet, when the lockdown lifted and projects once again began coming in, the founders of Nordic Sustainability had spent more than one afternoon reflecting on what type of company they wanted Nordic Sustainability to be. From its inception, a core value had always been that the ‘Nordic’ part of the name referred to how they worked: that they weren’t interested in creating yet another company filled to the brim with stress and sick-leaves – an environment all three partners knew all too well from previous employments. The question they asked themselves now was whether there would ever come a better time to implement a four-day work week?
The company’s employees had worked three days a week during the lockdown and with more work coming in, they could probably use a fourth. But did they need a fifth? Or was it time to jump into the unknown territory that was a four-day work week and start from the beginning, going over all habits, processes, cultural expectations towards consultants, and so many more. It was indeed.
A year later: It’s hard work, working less
So where are they today? Do they all lead perfectly balanced lives or are they real humans who still struggle? What elements have they implemented that work and which didn’t stick? What does it mean to be a partner in a consultancy navigating expectations from both clients and employees? Esben Lanthén is here to answer these questions and tell you a bit more about his point of view on the balance between life and work and why he thinks the four-day work week was a natural next step for Nordic Sustainability:
Q: Why a four-day work week in an industry that is notorious for working more than 40 hours?
To me, sustainability is just as much about the people as it is about the planet. When I look at my peers in the management consulting industry, I don’t always see a healthy work culture, one that allows people to thrive in their lives and develop professionally at the same time. While it has always been at the core of Nordic Sustainability to reduce our environmental footprint and work with our clients to do the same (at a much larger scale), we came to the realisation in 2020 that replicating the ways of working in the management consulting industry wasn’t sustainable for ourselves and our people. Taking myself as an example; I have two small kids at home and even though my job is important, they take priority.
When we started looking into the benefits of working fewer hours, it quickly became clear that the type of work we do is much better suited for rested minds. Strategy processes are notoriously complex and demanding in terms of your cognitive abilities and we genuinely believe that working fewer hours enable us to deliver higher quality for our clients. It also allows us to stay empathetic and attentive to the needs of our clients and colleagues as the ability to care for and understand other people’s challenges is one of the first things lost when you are stressed out or over-worked. In that sense, working fewer hours enable us to keep our clients’ interests in mind and become their trusted advisor – and it makes us much better colleagues.
If you add to the above, the obvious benefits of creating an attractive workplace that attracts great talents and keeps the ones we already have, it seemed like a pretty good idea to at least test out how a four-day work week could play out.
Q: What was the first thing you changed?
Well, the first thing we did was to say to the team that they didn’t have to work on Fridays unless a client needed them, or they had a deadline that required work on a Friday. This was without anyone taking a pay-cut. In that sense, the Friday is not a day off as such, it’s a flexible day that is off unless something gets in the way. This setup worked like a charm in the beginning while the market was still relatively calm in the aftermaths of first phase of the pandemic. But as more and more projects started coming in in late 2020, it became clear that new ways of working were needed to boost productivity and improve planning in order to keep most Fridays off. These new ways of working were co-developed by the team and together with hiring new colleagues helped address the pressure that had been building up and resulting in more Fridays spent in the office. The flexible Fridays are needed in a project organisation with tight deadlines, but it’s also the greatest risk to the four-day work week, because when you don’t have an assembly line that can be stopped or a store to close, how do you manage when to work and when not to work? Add to that a team of extremely dedicated consultants who go to work to try and change the world every day, it can sometimes be a challenge to get employees to stop working. In 2021, Nordic Sustainability has grown more than 100% and this growth has challenged the four-day work week at times, but it has also led to us continuously developing and professionalising our processes in order to re-commit to the four-day work week.
Q: So are you really off work every single Friday?
No. A four-day work week is our ambition and guiding star, but that’s not where we are today. Particularly when we are busy, the four-day work week tends to suffer. It’s not an easy task to navigate client expectations and our own professional ambitions in a system that is set up for people to be working (at least) five days. Generally speaking, our implementation of the four-day work week (like any other change process) has not been a linear curve towards fewer working hours, it’s a dynamic process that requires continuous iterations and re-commitments from management and the team. What I can say with confidence, is that we have set a new threshold for what a work week looks and feels like with considerably fewer work hours than before. We are going in the right direction, but we have also learned that it’s hard work, working less.
Q: What areas are you still working/improving on?
Overall, we’re still working on improving habits that make us more efficient from Monday to Thursday. I think anyone who has ever been introduced to a new system or online platform to use at work knows that it takes time to get a whole team onboard. Well, we didn’t just add new platforms, we’re also changing how we book meetings, when we do meetings, when we do quiet or talking hours in the office, how to do sprint sessions but also take more breaks during the day, as well as a host of internal processes to make our day-to-day work more efficient. There are none of the areas that are “done” with, we are very much still implementing and still tweaking our approaches. However, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t advanced on any of these topics. For instance, our “long” meetings are usually around 40-45 minutes now where our default used to be booking a solid hour. We’ve successfully arrived at a point where we’re not expecting people to be constantly available online or to have any notifications from email or Teams, enabling people to get their work done without getting disturbed. So even if we’re not gold medalists in always using Pomodoro, we’re changing how we work for the better, step by step.
Q: What does 2022 look for Nordic Sustainability’s four-day work week?
In 2022, I would want the key word for us to be something as boring as planning. As the team continues to grow, we are on the one hand becoming a more complex organisation to manage, but on the other hand also adding more resources who can be shuffled around to address peak workloads. Our implementation of tools and internal processes to manage our resources is essential, particularly as 2022 looks to be just as busy as 2021 for sustainability consultants. We will also be in closer dialogue with other organisations that are implementing a four-day work week or have started other innovative ways of working. We have likely picked most of the low hanging fruits and trialled a lot of the commonly known approaches to working better and more productively, and as such we are even more dependent on figuring the new interventions out together with peers.
Coming up: four-day work week webinar
If you’re interested in learning even more about Nordic Sustainability’s four-day work week journey as well as how the Danish company Retio is approaching the challenge along with the Danish expert in four-day work week Pernille Garde, then tune into our webinar on January 13th where we dive into all the nitty-gritty and even present you with some of our favorite tools and approaches to making it work.