Designing our time - The case for R&D and a 4-day work week

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An approach to doing better work

We’re often asked about the way we work. New clients understandably want to look behind the curtain to better understand our approach, process and culture. They want to know when we’re available, and what makes us the best choice for them. Here, we offer some thoughts about the way we work, how we structure our working week. And why.

Wanting to improve

As strategic design consultants, we bring about meaningful change to our clients’ products, services and businesses. Part of what make us so effective is our desire to iterate and improve our own culture and approach. 

Two years ago, our business was growing and in good health, but we were looking to kick on. We asked ourselves: How can we evolve the way we work, attract the best talent, improve the quality of our collective thinking, and take our output for our clients up a level?

Making changes

We challenged ourselves to develop a bold approach to the way we work that would help us grow. A key part of this brief was the way growth was defined. Of course, there was the bottom line — we certainly wanted to make the business more profitable — but we could not ignore the fact that design is not simply work for most of us. The moment it becomes just work we lose our intrinsic motivation, and the quality of work suffers. 

Our growth would be founded on building a culture of fresh thinking and greater purpose that would attract and retain the best talent, while allowing existing team members to flourish.

Affording ourselves a luxury

Our answer came in the form of an investment in ourselves. Because we came to understand that our own development — and the development of us as an experience design team — is the most valuable project we have.

We turned our attention to research and development (R&D) and began to look at how we could design our time to create more space for ourselves to learn and explore. We knew from past experiences that this could be a rather fragile space, in need of continual protection and cultivation. 

While we at ELSE were coming to see R&D as essential. We looked around our industry — driven though it is by people who thrive on learning and exploration — and saw that time for R&D is still often considered to be a luxury. But things are changing.

Seeing the case for R&D

A 2020 survey from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, shows a high percentage (55%) of all creative industry firms conducted R&D in the last year, with the most commonly cited benefits being improved profitability and the quality of goods and services.

This compares to the year before when just 16% of all UK businesses invested in internal R&D.  There appears to be a trend towards this kind of activity in businesses, but time remains constricted and the budgets remain small or non-existent, with only 8% of creative companies allocating a separate budget R&D at all.

Fitting it in

We quickly realized that, in creating space for R&D, we would be compressing time available for other “core” activities, although we hesitate to use this definition here because the whole point of this project was to make R&D “core”. And would compressing time for other things necessarily be a bad thing, as we might first assume?

The other question was: how much time should we allocate? In an industry built on billing for studio hours, could we really contemplate allocating a day each week to work that was “unbillable”?

On the surface it seemed that working less days might in fact answer two objectives of the brief by creating space for R&D and the conditions for more purposeful work.

So, we started to look at a 4-day working week, which because of reduced hours requires individuals and teams to be both purposeful and effective in what they do and how they organise each day.

We’ll take the liberty of a sizeable shortcut by not presenting here the full case for a shorter work-week (but please read the new book Shorter — How working Less Will Revolutionise the Way Your Company Gets Things Done’ by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang). For now, we’ll imagine you might broadly agree that it is possible to do more engaging, purpose-driven work with less time.

To excel in a 4-day model, teams need to understand what valuable work looks like, and they need to be able to attack it as individuals and groups. When engaged in work that’s driven by purpose, teams have more autonomy and can master their schedule. Increased autonomy, purpose and mastery lead to a feeling of time passing quickly, or ‘Flow’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book ‘Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

The beginnings of protected time

Despite priding ourselves on our work ethic, our self-audit recognised the amount of wasted time in our working days, even where an 8-hour day didn’t feel long enough to service client work. A standard 9 to 5 regime could be too often dominated by low-quality time with back-to-back meetings, offering no space to do, let alone think.  Something had to change.

Our audit also articulated a certain conditioning by the design industry that the first thing to get compromised is our own time. An hour here and an hour there, over-run is often absorbed by the individual. This over-run impacts our ability to expand our own expertise because the time to develop is forced to sit outside of our ‘work’ day.

Consultation process

As the prospect of adopting this newly designed week became real, we engaged in a consultation process with clients, staff and senior advisors.

At first, we fielded lots of questions from accountants and advisors as to “WHY?”. Convention dictated we were designing conditions that might make us less profitable, and might put ourselves under greater time pressure. However, we remained compelled by the evidence and thinking behind shortening our week to 4 days — with a view to being more productive, while increasing the quality of our downtime.

Encouraging internal conversation

We’ve always tried to have flexible working hours and the option of remote working. So, by the time the entire company started its first trial of a 4-day week, we’d already been experimenting with it. We knew we could do it. It was just a question of changing the format and making it so that everybody could participate.

Across the team we encouraged trust in one another to share in depth our concerns about this new approach, what we expected to work for each of us, and what the challenges might be. As the 4-day week was implemented we encouraged people to share and adopt each other’s successful approaches. 

We didn’t leave things to chance. Where things were not working as quickly as we hoped, or when someone was struggling, it we worked through the process as a team. And as a leadership team, we knew the transition could not and would not happen on its own. Our role was to support the transition, promote engagement and stimulate the conversation about:

  • who the 4-day week is working for
  • what ways of working they have adopted, and 
  • what can we transfer to the rest of the team

As a group, we’ve been focused on learning how much can be achieved in a shorter space of time. We continue to encourage each individual to realise the hours in which they’re most effective, and to achieve more by being more organized. 

The personal challenge of a 4-day week

Working smarter and working shorter depends on the right culture built around an ability to organise ourselves. Adopting a 4-day week practice was met with a barrage of questions from the team: 

  • How much output am I capable of in a shorter timeframe?
  • How will I plan my week?
  • How can I organise my time better?
  • Will I still hit deadlines?

We begin the week by getting together and, especially in this phase of forced remote working, human contact remains vital. We come together not to sit at a desk and process emails or Slack messages but to work together, exchange ideas, and provide support.

And in this time at the beginning of the week, we define our collective goals. Rather than handing out tasks, we enter into a social contract. All that matters is that we collectively achieve our stated goals. Individuals are empowered to define their tasks and share how they’re dependent on other team members. Tools like Miro and Figma become essential for us as a team and our successful communication.

Together, we’re learning a new set of skills that gives us choice. We start with two crucial questions:

  1. What have you got to do?
  2. What do I need to get the job done?

When team members can answer these questions for themselves, it becomes possible to reimagine the 5-day week, 9 to 5, requirement. It offers a new balance between team collaboration and individual focused work. And it opens the door to the precious R&D time we wanted.

The impact of Covid-19

It’s worth noting that the pandemic has given us all an opportunity to think about how we organise ourselves, our people and our work. An unexpected upside of our Time by Design project is that we were well placed to adapt and make sure our teams could not only continue to produce great work, but still feel great about the process.

Investing in tools to help us succeed

Investment was made available to test and implement digital tools to support the 4-day working week. Across the team lots of popular productivity and time management tools were discovered and shared with the group.

Part of our approach was to support these small bottom-up experiments which helped verify whether a tool would work in the new workplace we were trying to create, rather than invest in something based on a vendor’s promises and try to impose it from the top down. Putting our money where our mouth was also demonstrated the commitment we had as a company to make this work. And it empowered our team to make it work.

Evolving our space for R&D

Since we first began to focus on it two years ago, our format for R&D has gone through a few iterations. 

Before settling on the 4-day week solution, we initially trialed an allocation of 10% of everyone’s time that could be spent on exploring the relationship between people and technology. A simple reduction in client time, in favour of exploring our own products.

Results and output were mixed. An open brief and endless space to explore can be hard to find focus. When faced with an open brief it can be easier to default back to a more tangible client problem instead. 

R&D today

Fast forward to 2021 and we’ve developed a more structured framework that promotes stronger R&D output. During three or six month blocks, we now focus on one of three areas:

  1. A Product —in order to launch something in market.
  2. A Challenge — responding to the challenges of our time and applying theories of behavioural science to experience design.
  3. A Future — using speculative design practices to describe a future where the impact of today’s technology can be questioned / explored / understood.

Our teams take ownership of the projects that inspire them — defining, designing and delivering their solutions.

Our R&D output

To see the lights really come on around this initiative has been hugely rewarding — it genuinely is a chance to develop skills, and has become a hugely valued opportunity to develop expertise in areas that might be yet be unexplored.

One of the most exciting product outputs is SWAY — an application that allows us to bring all our research skills and expertise to see how we can make a difference.    

SWAY allows you to measure the impact of your consumer choices. Think of it like a smart energy meter, based on your demand. Being sustainable and ethical in our choices takes effort. By making the results of our choices more tangible SWAY can inspire new behaviours and a happier, healthy planet.

Last year, SWAY earned an Honourable Mention at the Design Intelligence Awards.Creating value for our clients

It’s easy to see the value of developing this kind of initiative for us as a business, and for us as practitioners. But it’s also hugely valuable for our clients.

Clients come to us because of who we are, the perspective we bring, and the application of our experience to their problem. In our experience, clients value experience, but they also want inspiration and novelty. You don’t get that through client work alone, but by careful and deliberate cultivation of a culture of experimentation and creative thinking without the constraints of business and politics.

As we discussed our proposition, almost all were open to our assertion that it would ultimately benefit them if we were able to offer our people time to have other experiences. After all, if all you do is the work that comes to you, you become your experience, and your learning becomes defined by that.

R&D output – SWAY

Does it work for our clients?

From the outset we considered the potential impacts on our business alongside the benefits for our clients, because the two are intrinsically linked. Irrespective of any improvements to our own culture, the project would only succeed if itdemonstrably benefited our clients.

Front of our minds was the strategic impact any changes would have on how we position ourselves, how we might be perceived in the market, and ultimately our ability to be our clients’ secret weapon.

Of course, our four-day week raises the occasional eyebrow with some new clients, that is until they work with us and get a sense of working with a purposeful, focused team, working at pace. 

Designing our time more effectively is about getting ahead, bringing our clients fresh opportunities, staying sharp, and fostering a culture of exciting creativity. It’s about getting better, by iterating how we do this thing called design. And we are demonstrating the value of that approach to our clients every day.

Following the redesign of our time, the key performance indicators all demonstrate the success of our approach: Client satisfaction scores have ratcheted up — before the switch we were at 7.55, a year later our scores have topped 9.05. The digital UK benchmark is 7.25 and the consultancy UK benchmark is 7.71 — so it took us up way beyond the consultancy benchmark, and distinguished us from our competitors.

This shows an exceptionally high 90% of clients who responded are rating us at an 8 or above - the vast majority in Active Advocacy. The executive summary from the research firm states “Unsurprisingly, your feedback reflects high levels of Active Advocacy driving behaviours” and “not only is the experience of working with you a delight, but the combination of your expertise with your commitment to understanding your clients’ business is a recurring narrative.” We are immensely proud of this.      

Gross Income Per Head / revenue

As we all know, gross profit per head is an undeniable measure of productivity and of the health of a design consultancy. This has increased significantly across the business, driving more profit we could plough back into the model and R&D work. Our Gross Income Per Head (GIPH) in 2020 was significantly higher than the UK average. And, in the years since adoption, our own staff continue to report a significantly more rich and productive work experience.

A view from outside

An external advisor, experienced in guiding design firms, when asked whether they had observed any difference in the leadership team as a result of this project said: “Yes, the 4-day weeks allow for more time to imagine and apply thinking to new ideas and create viable ventures.”

When asked how their culture and 4-day week compare with other companies in this industry:

“Gross Profit Per Head is higher than the industry average and the team feel that working for this firm is a privilege.”

Employee reactions, one year in

So far, so good. At this point we are normalizing what works for us as a team, and we gravitate to shared strategies. 

It’s not without its challenges, but we seem to have found a way to keep Friday dedicated to ourselves, to do what we don’t otherwise have time to do and yet still hit the same (if not improving) levels in our client work. We’ve also seen that in addition to being more productive in our client work, we’re also producing more R&D output than ever before.

Feedback from members of our senior leadership team tells us, that while this approach requires continual care and attention “most team members have sharpened their focus on their priorities each week”, with a principal benefit of the 4-day model being that we have a whole day to focus on R&D rather than splitting it over a week.

An employee survey showed that 85% of employees feel positive about working a 4-day week.

Employees also commented on the health and emotional benefits they’re experiencing 6-months in. Two other key areas the team commented on were ‘family’ and ‘having greater focus at work’.

Working here, I feel privileged with an R&D day, it’s a rarity in our industry and I find myself fully motivated coming in on Mondays. Having time to sort my own personal things out over a 3-day weekend gives a better work-life balance and allows me to enjoy special family moments like taking my daughter to school once a week. Time is precious and our firm is one of the rare employers that understand that. – A senior team member.

I’ve appreciated having 3 days to genuinely recharge. You notice it in weeks that return to the standard format. Protected time for R&D has allowed us to focus without client distractions. Pre-Covid, some of us worked from the studio. This was a nice change in pace to the standard working week. – Another team member.