Q&A: Qwick CEO details his company's four-day workweek trial

The hospitality gig-work platform is testing a 4-day, 32-hour workweek for full-time staffers until July, then will decide whether to stick with the change.

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The idea of a four-day workweek has been gaining traction, and hospitality gig-work platform Qwick is the latest to try out the idea. The Phoenix, Ariz.-based company kicked off a pilot project today for most of its 200-strong workforce, with the aim of boosting staff well-being and even productivity.

The five-day, 40-hour workweek has been the norm for most workers since the early part of the 20th century. While there have been calls for a shorter week for decades, the idea has yet to gain mainstream acceptance. But it is getting more serious consideration from companies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many businesses to take a fresh look at work practices. Unilever, Bolt, and Kickstarter are among the companies that have either trialed the idea recently or adopted it permanently.

At Qwick, workers will switch from the typical five-day, 38-hour week in place since the company launched in 2018, to 32 hours a week spread over four days. (Employees will receive the same pay as they did for a five-day week.) The trial, which applies to Qwick’s full-time staffers, will run until July 2022.

Jamie Baxter Qwick

Jamie Baxter, Qwick's co-founder and CEO.

Qwick’s workers handle a range of common business roles, including sales, marketing, finance, and IT. Account managers and operational staff also interact with Qwick’s hospitality industry clients and workers (or “business partners” and “professionals,” as Qwick calls them), as part of its online staffing business. Most staff involved in the trial will now work Monday through Thursday, though some will work over the weekend on a rotating basis to meet customer needs.

Qwick Co-founder and CEO Jamie Baxter hopes a shorter workweek will yield a range of benefits, such as reduced burnout, while helping the fast-growing business retain and attract top talent in a difficult labor market. “We're really looking for three things to happen from this: increased productivity, increased creativity, and better employee well-being,” said Baxter.

At the end of the trial, the company will decide whether to adopt the four-day workweek in the long term, adapt its plans, or shelve the idea entirely. However, Baxter is confident that the pilot will prove a success.

This Q&A is a lightly edited interview with Baxter.

What led you to consider a four-day workweek?

"We've been fortunate to see a lot of success, a lot of growth, and we kept hiring people as we saw more demand. We were telling ourselves that ‘if we can just hire 20 more people in this department, or if we can hire this group of people, everything will be better, we'll catch up and we won't be burning ourselves out anymore.’ The truth is it will never get better, because we'll never be able to hire fast enough to keep up if we continue the success rate that we're at.

"Ultimately, we're going to end up burning people out. I started to see that with some of the team and I don't want to burn people out and lose them. Or, worse yet, I don't want to burn people out and have them stay, because then we're not getting the most creative work out of people. We're playing the innovation game — we need to innovate as fast as possible — and to do that we've got to be able to show up every day, full of energy with creative minds on.

"[People often] work Monday through Friday, catch up on all the work we needed to get done throughout the week on the Saturday, try to get our stuff together on Sunday, then show up Monday exhausted, just to try to do it all over again. I don't think we're being as productive and efficient with our time.

"I want to take care of our employees' well-being both mentally and physically. For example, a sprinter has to take a break and recover before they can sprint again. But we were sprinting every single week. Really, it's a marathon of sprints and we were never taking the time to recover."

Why did you decide to try a shorter workweek now? Why not at an earlier stage for the business?

"I don't think we ever thought of it when we were smaller. As a 10-person team or whatever, we had no time to think about it; all you're doing is just grinding every day and every night.

"What really got us thinking about it is when we went through a pretty big layoff during COVID. The team size shrunk quite a bit, then over the last year we've grown the team almost 700%, because we've just seen such tremendous growth post-COVID. That's where I really started to see it take a toll on people. I could see in peoples’ eyes that they were drained.

"It feels like we're at the right stage where we have enough staff to do something like this.... There was no way we could possibly manage that with a team of 10 or 20 people.

"The way we are working was born out of the Industrial Revolution, when you had usually one primary worker and one primary home caretaker [in a typical family]. But a lot of our employees don't have that; they're either living on their own, or both are working, and [a five-day week] just wasn't working for them."

You’ve discussed the benefit to existing employees; how useful could this be in hiring new staff, too?

"The No. 1 thing I’m focused on is attracting and retaining the best talent. If we have the best team, then we'll produce the best results. So this is about taking care of our team, making sure that they stay here for the long term, and that we can get the most creativity.

"But everybody's looking for talent right now. We’ll use this, along with a lot of our other benefits, to attract people. Combined with our unique culture and way of operating, I hope that continues to build the team. The talent density we have right now is just incredible, but we need more, and we're going to at least double the team again this year.

"We like to say we're changing the way people work, which applies to our app for sure and how we're changing the hospitality industry, but I also want to change the way that we work inside Qwick. I think a tech startup could work very differently."

Is this pilot for all staff? Or are there some roles that aren't considered a good fit?

"It's going to be applied to our full-time staff. We do have some part-time staff that we allow to choose their own hours already. This is outside of our 'professionals’ [the hospitality workers Qwick matches jobs in its platform]. Our professionals get to choose all of their freedom and flexibility, because it's the gig economy.

"We have 80 folks that are part-time today and they get to choose their own schedule, they get to work whenever they want. This [pilot project] applies to all our full-time folks, across all different departments."

[In response to a follow-up question via email about whether the four-day workweek benefits could be extended to all Qwick freelancers and platform workers — for example, in the form of overtime pay after 32 hours, Baxter said: “Since both part-time workers at Qwick and Professionals that use that platform already have full flexibility, requiring a four-day workweek model for them would be more of a restriction. Qwick’s Professionals sign up because they are able to pick a custom schedule each week that works for their specific needs. This is our differentiator and is what keeps Professionals coming back.”]

What are some of the concerns you have about the idea? What potential hurdles do you anticipate?

"We're always experimenting with new things; that's the nature of a tech startup. When you innovate, some things that you try work and some things don't. The idea is to learn and iterate.

"I want to ensure that we continue the velocity we have as a team, so that we can keep up with all of our business partners and professionals. I also want to make sure that our innovation continues at the same pace, so our engineering team continues to produce the same amount of high-quality code. I think we will actually produce better code and more code.

"The other part is I want to ensure that our team actually adopts it: that's probably my biggest concern. We've got so many people that are really committed to Qwick, they love what they're working on. And I hope that they actually do take the extra day and take care of themselves and their families, and that they don't just grind it out, because we've hired a lot of people who are really hard working; I love that they have that passion, but I also want to make sure that they have that passion long term.

"In some ways, it’s against that startup culture and mindset of, 'Hey, we're all gonna hustle and grind and really get this done.' I don't want us to lose that, I just want to focus that really intensely in four days and then be able to recover and come back and give it even more intensity over those four days."

Will a four-day workweek add more complexity, such as managing the handover of tasks between staff?

"We've actually been working for the last six weeks on planning, meeting cadence schedules, work coverage schedules, escalation procedures. So if something goes wrong, how we can ensure that it is escalated to the right person.

"We've had a lot of that in place for weekends already, because people already worked on Saturdays and Sundays before. So we've adapted it to apply for Fridays as well and then also say, 'All right, if our core team is Monday through Thursday, how do we ensure that any of that extra work is handed off to the right way.'"

To what degree does access to modern collaboration tools and analytics or different platforms enable you to move to a four-day workweek?

"We use Slack all the time, and it allows for real-time communication. We’ve actually automated a lot of things in Slack as well. So we can utilize those technology tools to help us with that where it becomes more seamless.

"I don't think we would have been able to do it as efficiently, five to 10 years ago. The tools weren't there.

"We also developed our internal tool called Qwickio; think of it as the central monitoring station for the marketplace that allows us to see everything going on and see what's not working. It's like NASA Mission Control, but it's also how we interact with all of our pros and business partners.

"We didn't want a third-party tool to manage customer support, like a ticketing system. We wanted real-time communications, so we built that. You can text us and we have real humans on the other end that will text you back.

"A combination of those third-party tools plus all of these really cool tools that we built internally, allow us to [communicate and manage work] seamlessly."

How can you avoid disruption to clients when shifting to a four-day workweek?

"I don't think our business partners or pros will even know that we've changed anything, because we still have people staffed seven days a week, and the tools make it so they feel connected with us 24 hours a day.   

"For companies that didn't operate seven days a week already, it would probably be a pretty big challenge.

"We've operated seven days a week since the day we started, so it's just a matter of changing some of our folks from five days to four days. We've rotated the schedule so not everyone's working Monday through Thursday. Some people will work Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, so they'll have just four different days.

"We had to do some hiring ahead to ensure we had enough people to cover every single shift for four days, but I think for companies that weren't in that position, it would be a much harder challenge.

"In some ways we’re fortunate that we're used to running seven days a week already, so it doesn't really matter how we shift that around, as long as all seven days are still covered. We're really used to that."

Looking down the line to the end of the pilot, what are your criteria for success? If you see a slight reduction in productivity but an increase in employee well-being or other metrics, could that be acceptable? What will it take for you to continue with a four-day week in the long term?

"We're really looking for three things to happen from this: increased productivity, increased creativity, and better employee well-being.

"We've got a lot of metrics that we've lined up to look at it from a very objective perspective and measure the empirical data around velocity and ratings that we get on our app store — NPS [Net Promoter] scores, things like that. We're also doing surveys before, during, and after, of our employees to measure that well-being. As we go through this, we'll be looking at it on a monthly basis and seeing, where are we trending? How is this going?

"I think it will actually increase productivity, creativity, and well-being. If we saw a slight decrease in productivity, but increased creativity, increased employee well-being, I think that may be okay. Because ultimately, we're going to have employees that are much more engaged, that stay with us longer, that are coming up with more creative ideas.

"At the end of the day, we're innovating [as a business] and if we're not innovating with creativity, then we've lost the game. And so even if we move a little slower, but we're more creative, that'd be a win to me. And the data that we've seen from a lot of other companies that have done this is that they've actually seen quite a boost in productivity and in creativity.

"...It's the well-being of our employees that I care about the most, but we can't do that solely at the expense of creativity or productivity either. So, I'm looking for a balance of all those.

So, I think we'll either get to the end and say this is working really well, or we've got to adjust and pivot and try to tweak this and try something else, or we go back and do something more like what we were doing before. But I'm really confident in this team, it's a really, really smart team that is very creative; we're going to figure it out."

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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