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Q&A: Kitfox Games co-founder Tanya X. Short breaks down the four-day work week

"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."

We recently had the chance to chat with Kitfox Games co-founder Tanya X. Short as part of a broader investigation into the benefits and challenges of four-day work weeks.

Inevitably, some parts of our conversation were left on the chopping block, and that's a damn shame, because the full exchange was filled with fascinating insights and tidbits that will no doubt be useful to other developers mulling over the prospect of shorter working weeks.

So, to help add more context to our multi-source discussion and provide a more detailed look at how Boyfriend Dungeon developer Kitfox has handled its own four-day week pivot, we've published the complete Q&A below. Enjoy! 

Game Developer: Why did you decide to implement a four-day week, and what have been some of the key benefits at this stage?

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

Game Developer: You mentioned that you've encountered some stressful cons. Could you elaborate on that point? What sort of challenges have you faced, and how are you working to address them?

Business development and community management are often difficult to constrain to certain days of the week -- any social media manager knows that blow-ups somehow always seem to happen on the weekend, and a 4-day delay in response to an urgent business partner email can be extremely expensive. So it does feel like some roles are better-suited to shorter weeks than others. They might also suffer from a larger proportion of infinite hour tasks, which get harder and harder to shove into a 32-hour box. 

But after six months or so, I can say my primary gripe with 4-day weeks is that I believe in the normal 5-day week, Friday acts as a kind of buffer against productivity loss. I believe most people aren't that productive on most Fridays, but in the case that they had an off-day earlier in the week (bad sleep, minor cold, family drama), they can then use that Friday to make it up... and in a 4-day week, there isn't the same kind of forgiveness. I wish we had that buffer back, for people who need it, because when someone has an off-day, they end up with only 2 or 3 productive days in the week, and that can slow down the whole team.

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There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests a four-day week improves mental health without hampering productivity. In one specific trial undertaken by Microsoft Japan in 2019, it was found that productivity actually increased as a result of the new regime. How do those findings compare to your own experiences so far?

Slight derailment, feel free to ignore: I have done some project management studies, and we follow many best practices for helping people be as productive as possible. However, I find it very difficult to compare the measurable productivity of one team and one project to any other team and any other project, or even the same project in different phases of production.

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 4 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. 

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.

Actual answer: Subjectively, everyone reports being relatively as productive as before. 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 project knowing that I'd never be able to "prove" whether the team was similarly productive or not. I would guess we're slightly less productive. If it weren't for the missing "buffer" I mention in the previous answer, I'd guess we're only 5-10% less productive, which from a holistic perspective is a great bargain, since people get 20% more time.

I'm also curious to know what your measure of success will be at the end of the trial? What would it take for Kitfox to make four-day weeks a permanent fixture, and how are you actively tracking productivity and wellbeing?

I talk to each employee in 1:1s, but it's tough, because of course very few people will beg to come in and work on Fridays if they don't have to, even if they love their job. It's still a job. Not a cult.

Whether or not to end 4-day weeks has to be an intuitive judgement call. There's no convincing way for that decision to be metrics-driven, in my opinion. The hiring situation in Montreal is extremely difficult for smaller companies right now, given all of the studios that are staffing up with huge salaries, so maybe it's best to see it as a retention perk. We're definitely keeping it through the end of the year at least, especially as the pandemic is ongoing. 

Maybe if I can figure out a "make up Fridays" or similar building of an extra buffer to help us keep 4-day weeks as a minimum, I'll feel even better about making it permanent. It sure is difficult to imagine coming into work on Fridays anymore. It didn't take long for my whole mental model to adjust.

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