Published 09 Feb 23

Kate Walker, Founder and CEO of KWD&Co., is always striving to be at the forefront of new developments in best business practice. A progressive thinker and innovator, she was intrigued by the rise of the four-day working week movement.

The concept of a five-day working week is so ingrained in our society that we often forget the path we took to get there. This societal, man-made formula was created to maintain a sense of order and uniformity, in fact it was only in January 1948 that the Commonwealth Arbitration Court approved a 40-hour, five-day working week for all Australians. Previously, the working day was 12 hours or longer.

Advocates for the four-day week point out that unlike a season or a day, or the turning of the tides, there is nothing natural about the working week. Interest in the four-day week has gathered momentum. “This was something which, pre-pandemic, was a growing niche [but] still very much a fringe concept,” says Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4 Day Week Global. “The impact of the pandemic has turbocharged the four-day-week movement.”

Adds lead researcher Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist at Boston College, “This is important because the two-day weekend is not working for people. In many countries, we have a workweek that doesn’t mesh with contemporary life. For the well-being of people who have jobs, it’s critical that we address the structure of the work week.”

As with all matters of business operations, Kate is always keen to be at the forefront of new concepts and an early adopter of innovative systems. She dived into the research and findings about the four-day work week, weighing up the positives and negatives. After assessing the benefits and the repercussions, Kate felt that the time was right. An unusual and progressive step for the design industry, and for a small studio of 20 staff, KWD has now passionately adopted the four-day working week movement.

My reason for adopting a four-day working week was a selfish one at first. I wanted this for myself, for my own desire to recalibrate after several years of working without reprieve. Additionally, post Covid-19, we saw a shifting attitude in employee expectations and sentiment. I was not immune to the global social media pressures to address a perceived outdated work/life balance.”

“We had lost our freedom, the opportunity to socialise, relax and rejuvenate, to escape, to travel, and to re-energise ourselves. Bad habits formed, and then when the world opened up again, we suffered from social fatigue. The perfect storm resulted. I lost several members of staff all at once, citing career burnout, not because they didn’t like the work or the clients or the environment, but because they simply could no longer maintain the status quo. As the team wasn’t working on weekends or burning the midnight oil, I was at a loss to understand this burnout. I needed to understand the core issue so I could find a solution. I realised that something had to change and change quickly.” 

Kate knew that if these KWD&Co. workplace reforms were going to be successful, she had to lead by example. She was also very aware that she had to have concurrence from the whole team for any change to be effective. “We invest so much time and effort introducing new team members to our design ethos, our ways of working, our customer service values, our pursuit of excellence, and our desire to have a positive culture. Staff churn is extremely taxing emotionally and financially, so staff retention is paramount.”

I take every experience, positive and negative, as a learning opportunity, and strive to integrate these learnings into the business. Amongst many of the changes we are implementing is the commitment to achieving a work/life balance - for myself and for my team which is made up mostly of working mothers. The ideal solution was to adopt the four-day working week, giving us all an extra day in our lives to nourish ourselves.”

Set in motion in late 2022, the design team was split into two, one group taking the Monday off and the other taking the Friday off. This rotating system achieves balance for both teams and ensures that the office is always open Monday to Friday. Explains Kate, “Whilst KWD&Co. is not in the realm of large organisations where output is easily measured, we are focused on having a culture that appreciates passion, talent and commitment. By fostering this positive environment, the ensuing level of productivity and energy produces incredible results for our clients, a collaborative atmosphere and the work/life balance that was our core goal.”

For Charlotte, a Junior Designer, the four-day working week was something she never thought would be on offer. “For a design studio to undertake this revolutionary way of working is really uncommon. When Kate presented the idea the whole design team was delighted and very appreciative. Kate was very clear that she wanted us to embrace this extra day off for personal growth and enjoyment. I personally love having each Monday off so I can get away for a long weekend if I want to, prepare meals for the week ahead without encroaching into my Sunday, and focus my attention on what’s important. It really is life changing, and I feel that my productivity is even more energised on the four days I am in the office.”

One of KWD&Co.’s head designers, KP, had listened with interest to reports in the media about the concept of a four-day working week. “I knew it was quite popular overseas and gaining momentum, but I didn’t think it would be possible in the design industry. When Kate put forward the idea I not only jumped at the opportunity, I was so impressed that KWD&Co. would take such a significant step and lead the way for other design studios. The transition has been incredibly smooth because we are all so committed to achieving above and beyond for our colleagues and clients, and my productivity has increased because my time management skills have been honed. I have made sure that my days off are not spent catching up on work or doing household chores – I keep these days for myself which is so beneficial not only for my own state of mind, but also for those around me.”

Within any organisation, implementing such a significant new policy will result in varying positives and negatives - for each individual and for each department. The effects and the benefits need to be carefully considered as each type and size of company will face differing concerns.

For Kelly, Head of Operations, the new working week has exposed challenges. “When Kate floated the idea of adopting a four-day working week, I really appreciated what she was trying to offer the team. I understood her reasoning and why she was so passionate about changing the culture and giving each team member a choice. However, from a personal point of view, I was concerned about the impact on my role within the organisation. Being responsible for scheduling every meeting for Kate and the team, the varying days make coordinating relevant team members significantly more complex than it already was. As well as being mindful of our client’s calendar commitments, several meetings during a project build require external professionals from building designers to trades, so bringing together Kate plus our design team plus the clients and consultants is not an easy task. Taking one day a week away from everyone’s availability adds a great deal of pressure to a task that was already difficult, and it does create a bottleneck on Mondays and Fridays which are the days our clients usually prefer for presentations and updates.”

In response, Kelly has been very proactive in creating effective workflows and project allocations that will suit both the client, the project and the design team. Working closely with clients and with the team has resulted in her developing systems that are proving to provide solutions for scheduling concerns. The analysis of business and practices, time management systems and finding efficiencies is crucial for negating any possible adverse impact.

The benefits for the community could be significant, on a personal as well as a global scale, improving well-being, increasing gender equality, and reducing carbon footprints with people travelling less frequently to the office. With change inevitably comes challenges, and shaking up a workplace requires a clear strategy and open conversations. However, the experience can prove energising and invigorating - increasing employee wellbeing, satisfaction and productivity, company commitment and teamwork, and decreasing stress levels.

Adds Kate, “For the KWD&Co. team, the benefits are significant and outweigh the effort it took to engage in this change.”