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On four-day work weeks: Lessons from the games industry and beyond

Developers and experts assess the impact of shorter working weeks to help us understand how a mantra of 'less work, more play' might shape our lives.

The four-day work week is an intriguing proposition, offering employees more flexibility and freedom when it comes to choosing how to split their time between work and leisure. It's a notion that has already become a reality at some studios, with indies like Bugsnax developer Young Horses and larger companies such as Eidos Montreal making the switch for a range of reasons that boil down to fostering a healthier, more creatively fulfilling lifestyle.

It's a noble aim, and one that looks not just desirable, but downright essential as workers throughout the games industry continue to wade through the peat bog of endemic crunch, misconduct, and abuse in bid to claw back more rights. If the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal of being, then it seems pertinent to ensure our work routines support the cause rather than hinder it. At this stage, there are signs that suggest the four-day week succeeds in the former.

Speaking to Axios earlier this year, Young Horses founder Phil Tibitoski explained how the studio swapped to four-day weeks in July 2021 as part of a unanimously decided trial period, before eventually making the move permanent. In practical terms, that meant swapping a 35-hour week for a 32-hour week, which Tibitoski indicated was a small price to pay for giving "people the peace of mind that they can relax doing their own thing on their own time, rather than have someone feel guilty for doing it at work."

Young Horses' ultimate goal, according to Tibitoski, was to establish a work-life balance where "growth of the studio is not very important and sustainability of the happiness of the people who work here is much more our focus." To find out whether that mantra holds water in practice, and critically, whether it can exist alongside the realities of production deadlines and productivity metrics, we spoke with more studios that have also managed to make the four-day switch.

Work happy

"We started testing it in June 2021, in the lead-up to Boyfriend Dungeon launch, which was August. I could see people were feeling a lot of pressure and doing good work, but also that we needed to make sure they weren't burning themselves out," explains Kitfox Games co-founder and creative director, Tanya X. Short, when asked why the studio chose to begin trialing four-day weeks earlier this year.

"I thought I wanted to try it out after launch so I asked the lead programmer for his thoughts. He felt the work was endless but manageable, and four-day weeks would be a good long-term investment. I think they were. We were still in a pandemic, and it felt like a very appealing lifestyle perk. The employees love it, for sure."

The combination of flexible remote working and concerns about prospective pandemic burnout, it seems, provided the spark for a number of developers to usher in four-day weeks. During another chat with Outerloop co-founder and studio director Chandana Ekanayake, we heard how the Falcon Age developer -- which has been fully remote since being founded in 2017 -- committed to a four-day week to better support its workforce and retain staff.

"Switching to a four-day work week for us started with the idea of how can we take care of the team's health for the long term during a pandemic and keep this team together over multiple projects. We tried out half day Fridays for several months and that worked out well. So going from 36-hour weeks to 32 wasn't a big stretch. Some folks like to stretch that over five days and sometimes four but we're very flexible," says Ekanayake.

"It's been working out fine and having an extra day to catch up on non-work things, do side projects or hobbies has been a good mental health benefit for everyone. Success for us is more of a long term view. Being productive is certainly a part of it but it's not the only aspect. The well being of the team is an important part of it and we're seeing that rest and breaks help with not burning out."

The Kitfox Games team

In a rare case of lighting striking thrice, it was a similar tale at Goodbye Volcano High developer Ko_op Mode, an artist run and owned studio that allows staff to purchase a stake in the business. Like Kitfox and Outerloop, the Canadian outfit chose to implement a four-day week at the beginning of the pandemic in a bid to shield and protect employees.

"I just don't think I would have been able to make it through that particular era of the pandemic without four-day work weeks. They were such a balm. It felt like the only thing we could do, honestly. Given the intense amount of stress everyone was under, it was just practical. It was what everybody needed," recalls the studio's community manager, Marcela Huerta.

Productivity matters

Based on the testimonies we've heard, it appears that spending one less day in the office (virtual or otherwise) serves as a mental salve, leaving workers happier, more energized, and potentially more likely to stay put. How though, does it impact productivity? The answer is less clear.

In 2019, Microsoft tested out a four-day work week at its Japan offices and reported that employees were both happier and significantly more productive. As reported by Business Insider, the tech giant found that giving its 2,300-strong workforce five Fridays off in a row without reducing pay actually boosted productivity by 40 percent. That pilot project, however, only lasted for a short period of time. It's also unclear how Microsoft measured productivity, and that could be equally important.

Kitfox co-founder Tanya X. Short, for instance, explains how employees subjectively reported being just as productive over four-days as they were before the switch, but feels that bias could be coming into play. She notes how it's incredibly difficult to compare the measurable productivity of one team and one project to another team or project, or even the same project in different phases of production -- making it tricky to effectively assess metrics over long spans of time.

"For example, when we were closing out Boyfriend Dungeon, fixing lots of little tasks and bugs, let's say we did an average of 40 points, whereas the tasks developing DLC are bigger but riskier, and now we are doing an average of 30. Is it because of four-day weeks? Or is it because the constraints are different and it's a smaller team? I'll never know. Maybe if we had a game as a service we could do more apples-to-apples comparisons, but we don't," she says, during an exchange that you can read in full right here.

"The inconvenient reality is that Goodhart's Law is absolutely true -- if I incentivized my people to have a higher velocity, I'm sure somehow more points would get done. But would more work get done? I doubt it. The important thing to me is that we track our velocity accurately, rather than flatteringly, and do our best to be productive, without compromising our quality of life.

"I am not convinced there is a good way to objectively measure team velocities at this scale, in these kinds of tasks, but I decided to undertake the [four-day week] project knowing that I'd never be able to 'prove' whether the team was similarly productive or not. I would guess we're only 5-10 percent less productive, which from a holistic perspective is a great bargain, since people get 20 percent more time [in return]."

Ko_op has worked on titles including Goodbye Volcano High, Skipping Stones, and Gnog (pictured)

For Ko_op, the situation was even more complex. After moving to four-day weeks at the start of the pandemic, the studio reverted to five-day weeks in order to meet pressing production deadlines. Returning to four-day weeks remained a vital goal, however, and so the studio began tracking productivity  to see whether that would be viable in the long-term.

"There was a lot of resistance to going back to five-day weeks. A lot of us said 'this is just not something we want to do.' We had gotten used to the four-day weeks. They were so helpful for our mental health," says community manager Marcela Huerta.

"We wanted to get back there, but we had to track that we could still meet our deadlines [over four days], so we designed a tracking process. We did our five-day work week until June 2021, and then we switched back over to four-days -- and that has been the routine ever since. But we had tracked our progress points, so we averaged about 20 points of progress on the tech team, as an example, on each sprint.

"We found after a couple of months of working four days that was basically unchanged. The same amount of work was being done, so the background artists were delivering the same amount of backgrounds per sprint [and so on]. Once we had those stats, it become a no-brainer and we voted unanimously to keep them permanently."

The takeaways are varied where productivity is concerned, then, but perhaps that doesn't matter. As our conversation continues, Huerta recommends developers who are cautiously flirting with the notion of a four-day week simply test it out. Conduct anonymous surveys, test for productivity, and bury yourself in reams of numbers and metrics if you need assurances -- or perhaps simply take a leap of faith.

"I don't love the stats part of it, because I honestly don't really care about them. I think the four-day week is a necessity we should all be moving towards, but I think a lot of these bigger companies are going to want a bottom line, and I think that a bottom line built on stats and tracking is the biggest thing I can recommend," she continues.

"If you're in a leadership position, it's your responsibility to not overwork your staff. If you have some measure of control over that, set an example. Push for a four-day work week. Push for more workers rights. Push for better benefits. That is the responsibility of people in leadership positions at these companies, and it's only going to make your working environment better."

Vive la révolution

"It's about capitalism," says Anna Coote, principal fellow at the New Economics Foundation and co-author of 'The Case for a Four Day Week,' when asked what's preventing shorter working weeks from becoming more commonplace around the world. "We do need very badly and very urgently to change the dominant model of capitalism which is now all about accumulation and growth, and that's never going to serve the interests of workers."

Coote asks if I've heard the famous musings of John Maynard Keynes (I haven't), an economist who in the 1930s predicted that his grandchildren would live in a society where technological advancements would provide an abundance of leisure time. Keynes even suggested that a 15-hour workweek would be entirely possible by now, making the notion of a four-day week seem positively abhorrent.

A representation of how some workers might feel on day five

Still, Coote says there are numerous reasons four-day weeks might not become the norm for some time. "It's not a simple proposition," she tells me, explaining there are ingrained biases and financial issues to overcome -- for instance, has anybody reading this article considered that a shorter working week might be offered alongside a salary reduction? She also points out that a four-day week might not work for everyone, as some employees could prefer the idea of a 30-hour week spread over the weekend, or a more compact work week that allows for a lengthy sabbatical in the summer. 

What Coote makes clear, however, is the importance of granting workers more control over their time and, by extension, their lives. She believes that providing additional flexibility will ultimately benefit both employees and employers, even if the latter remain laser focused productivity.

"The shift that needs to happen is that employers need to realize that if productivity is an issue for them, they're not going to get the best results by driving their workers as hard as they can. In some manufacturing industries that could possibility be the case, but it will be very bad for workers. They'll burn out and potentially move on," continues Coote.

"There's quite a lot of evidence to suggest that after a certain number of hours in the day, people get exhausted and the quality of their work falls down. So why not focus in and only ask people to work when they're likely to be at their most productive?"

Ultimately, taking those ideas onboard requires a cultural shift. Coote says we need to dispel the notion that we "live to work, work to earn, and earn to buy," reshaping our current worldview into something altogether more humane.

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