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Is a four-day workweek as good as it sounds? California employees share what it’s really like

By Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times
Published: May 29, 2023, 6:02am

OAKLAND, California — It’s after noon on a recent Wednesday, and the kitchen and patio at ThredUp’s Oakland headquarters are packed.

Employees are eating lunch and chatting around a long table in the kitchen. Smaller groups are clustered outside and enjoying a sunny spring day after weeks of rain.

But by 1:40 p.m., the communal gathering areas are silent.

People are quietly typing back at their desks, walking briskly to meetings or holed up in conference rooms on video calls. As Nickelback’s “Far Away” plays to a virtually empty kitchen, a few people pop in for free snacks, but they grab what they need and go. No chitchat. No lounging around.

Efficiency and time management are key when you’re on a four-day work schedule, as the more than 250 corporate employees at ThredUp are. The online secondhand reseller is one of a small but growing number of companies that have bucked the traditional five-day week in favor of what advocates and participants say is greater work-life balance.

Still, getting your work done in four days can be intense and stressful. ThredUp employees said it can be challenging to fit everything in so they can keep their Fridays free. Even then, several said they do still work a bit on Friday.

But choosing to do so — or not — is a huge difference.

“Most important is the flexibility for me to decide,” said Anton Naumenko, senior director of software engineering.

He often works up to 10 hours a day during his workweek, but Naumenko said having Fridays off was key to acclimating to life in the U.S., after moving from Ukraine last year. At first, he used his Fridays to get paperwork filed at various government agencies; now, he takes his two children to school, hikes with his wife, does housekeeping and gets groceries to leave weekends strictly for family time.

“I don’t see myself back to five-day working weeks,” Naumenko said. “More specifically, my wife doesn’t see this.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, interest in a four-day workweek has surged. Global studies on the shorter workweek have indicated positive outcomes, including big improvements in worker well-being, stress and burnout. Company managers say productivity hasn’t taken a hit.

“There’s an evolution in this direction,” said Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College and a lead researcher on studies run by 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit organization advocating for a four-day workweek. “I think we’re going to see more interest in this from the policy side, as well as from employers that are looking for ways to keep workers, to attract new workers and to keep their workers healthier.”

Many of the four-day workweek pioneers are small companies, but there are some larger standouts.

Last year, Panasonic’s Japanese division said it would offer an optional four-day workweek. In 2020, defense contractor Lockheed Martin implemented a four-day, 10-hour work schedule for major parts of its business, although some manufacturing jobs have had staggered production schedules since the 1990s.

Today, about 70% of Lockheed Martin’s U.S. workforce is working a “variation” of a four-day schedule, Chief Human Resources Officer Greg Karol said in an email. Lockheed Martin has about 116,000 employees worldwide, with 93% of those workers in the U.S., according to the company’s latest annual report.

“In today’s competitive talent market, it has been a meaningful differentiator reinforcing our employer value proposition,” Karol said.

ThredUp started experimenting with the four-day workweek at the beginning of the pandemic and made it official in 2021.

Employees work a Monday-to-Thursday schedule, with Fridays off. They still get full pay and benefits, including unlimited vacation time and a two-month sabbatical if they’ve been at the company for at least three years.

Not everyone gets a three-day weekend, though — only salaried corporate employees, who make up 15% of ThredUp’s 1,769-person workforce. (Executives said the distribution center workers, who handle all of the clothing submissions and do not have a four-day week, instead have flexible schedules.)

The year ThredUp started its new work schedule, 88% of the company’s employees said the four-day week was a “positive change” for the company. Last year, a company survey found that 93% of employees thought the four-day workweek was beneficial to their overall productivity.

It has also helped the company recruit and retain workers.

Last year, ThredUp’s corporate employee retention rate was 96%. Company executives said they’ve also seen a high “boomerang” rate of people who leave the firm for other gigs and then return within six months.

“Especially during a really hot job market, we didn’t see a lot of our team depart,” said Natalie Breece, chief people and diversity officer. “In terms of recruiting, it has really enhanced our efforts.”

Far from constant three-day weekend trips, a number of ThredUp employees said, Fridays are filled with routine tasks such as chores, doctor appointments or haircuts that they otherwise would have tried to fit into their workweek. Some said they were able to spend more time with their children, whether that was taking them to sports events or eliminating one day’s worth of child care.

Stephanie Yang, ThredUp’s senior counsel for employment and litigation, uses her Fridays to sit in on her 5½-year-old daughter’s behavioral therapy sessions. Before joining the company almost two years ago, she was at a law firm and tried to squeeze in the sessions among her billable hours.

“I felt like I was never sufficiently involved,” Yang said. “Or when I actually did take an hour here or half an hour there … I felt like, ‘Oh, it’s like lost time, I have to find someplace else to make up for it.’ “

Now she’s able to see her daughter’s progress rather than read about it in reports. Her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, is engaging more with Yang and generally more interactive.

In his sunny corner office populated by plants and books with titles including “Brave New Work” and “Making Big Happen,” company Chief Executive James Reinhart mused on how his college majors of philosophy and history got him thinking about new ways to work.

“You had all this legacy baggage around how we work,” he said. “It didn’t feel like the world had caught up to the modern technology communications infrastructure around how people work.”

He said he thought a lot about how to reinvent the modern working environment, especially one in which people feel they are always “on.”

“I thought, let’s experiment with four days where people are really on, working hard — and the expectation is you’re working super hard — and then three days of recovery,” said Reinhart, who co-founded ThredUp in 2009. “Could you imagine a world where people come back to the office on Monday, and they’re rested and recharged?”

Employees said that the shortened week forces them to reprioritize work responsibilities and focus on the most important things to get done right now. Meetings are scrutinized — a small sign in several conference rooms encourages workers to identify the purpose of the meeting, along with specific outcomes, a set agenda and expected completion time.

“I have a lot of freedom to look at all my meetings in the day, and I question, ‘Are these meetings actually maximizing output?’ “ said Yang, the senior counsel. “If not, then I might tell the person, ‘Hey, you know, it seems like this might be like a more appropriate issue for us to maybe check for five minutes when I see you in person.’ “

Could she see herself going back to a five-day workweek?

“That question already depresses me,” Yang said with a laugh. “I guess, you know, for the right project, yes. But I will have a hard time if I have to go back on a permanent basis because now that I’ve experienced the freedom of both trying to maximize my impact as an employee, as well as trying to do the best for my daughter, I think it’s going to be hard for me to settle for the traditional model.”

Despite the largely positive feedback, a four-day week might not work for every employer.

Companies with billable hours, such as law or accounting firms, still need to work out a model, said Schor of Boston College. Blue-collar work could shift to a four-day schedule, but it would require different strategies than at white-collar firms, where recovering lost time can mean simply cutting meetings or changing communication policies.

There are also downsides. Employees can get stressed out and their productivity actually decrease if company leaders don’t find ways to cut out unnecessary time sucks.

“I think it’s a fantastic thing to try, and I don’t think it will work for everyone,” said Kim Scott, author of the business leadership book “Radical Candor.” “But I don’t think any one thing will work. I don’t think a five-day workweek works for everyone, either.”

Golf club manufacturer Robin Golf embarked on the four-day workweek in 2021, a decision CEO Peter Marler attributed to studies he read about the benefits of a shorter workweek and his personal experience with a more flexible environment at Facebook.

“It really energizes you and makes you excited to wake up and go to work,” Marler said of the freewheeling culture at Facebook during its early years. “When you disconnect the work from the culture, it feels less important, and it feels less energizing, and it feels less impactful.”

Robin Golf began as a Kickstarter campaign in 2019, then officially launched in March 2020, the week that pandemic-related closures began. Marler co-founded the company with his brother, Andrew, and sister-in-law, Ali, both of whom also worked at Facebook and are big believers in the importance of a strong work-life balance to get the best out of employees.

“Facebook trained us to put people first,” said Andrew Marler, president of Robin Golf. “The company and the company’s mission kind of comes second to the person because you’re not as productive if you’re burning out for the company.”

Robin Golf’s eight full-time employees work Monday to Thursday, with team calls on Tuesdays and all-hands meetings on Thursdays. (The company relies on some five-day-a-week contractors to keep operations going full time in its fulfillment center and to handle customer service.)

The Los Angeles-based company doesn’t have an office — about half the staff is remote and the Marlers and another employee work from home or out of alternating WeWork sites, including one in Santa Monica.

The company began in Peter Marler’s home, where nearly every room was packed to the brim with equipment to be shipped to customers. All three Marlers packed orders themselves.

By July 2020, Robin Golf sold out of equipment. Sales quadrupled between 2020 and 2021 and grew an additional 50% last year, Peter Marler said, although he declined to release revenue figures.

Companies considering a four-day workweek should think about why they care if employees are working five days a week, said Ali Marler, the company’s chief marketing officer.

“If it’s because you actually feel like you’re not hitting your goals, then maybe there’s so much work that that’s necessary,” she said. “But if it’s just because it’s something we’re used to seeing, and you think it correlates with productivity and work output, I would strongly challenge that.”

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Back at ThredUp, Reinhart, the CEO, is careful to say that the company’s four-day workweek is still, technically, an “experiment.”

After all, he says, the company’s sojourn into a shorter week is butting up against years of traditional office conventions.

“It remains to be seen sort of how this plays out over a few years,” Reinhart said. “But I think the bar is high to prove that five days is sufficiently better.”