TANDEM Design Studio’s experiments with a shorter working week

In late 2021, the team at TANDEM Design Studio was fatigued. Lack of holidays, social life, and any certainty had taken its toll during Melbourne’s multiple lockdowns. The pandemic had changed the way the practice worked, with staff finding it more difficult to stick to set working hours, lacking the definition of coming and going from an office, with the peaks and troughs of projects dictating the day-to-day intensity.

While the practice has a strong policy on paid overtime, they were finding that employees were still doing a lot of unpaid overtime. Often, it was around two to four hours a week, which staff felt sheepish about claiming. The administration around recording and claiming this overtime was also difficult to adhere to in a deadline-driven environment.

Having experienced exploitation early in their careers, Directors Tim Hill and James Murray were keen to rein this in. They had begun to wonder how they could better support their dedicated and hard-working employees with a way of working that acknowledged their commitment while giving them time off for the other things in their lives. 

“We’d been reading about the history of the move to a 40 and then a 38 hour working week and the potential for a societal shift to a 36 or a 32-hour working week and were keen to start exploring these ideas within our own practice”, explained James.

With no proven models to guide them, Tim and James got together with their staff to throw around some ideas. Associate Priscilla Finn explains, “We had team discussions about the aim of modified working hours, the execution as well as how we would measure its success. We discussed that it might not suit everyone’s situation and how to maintain office cohesiveness and social life.”

The course of action that arose from this discussion was an agreement to undertake a 2-month experiment with a 4-day working week. TANDEM’s cautious approach was to compress a normal 38-hour working week into a 4-day workweek consisting of a 9.375-hour working day from Monday to Thursday followed by a 3-day weekend. This means that staff who took up the experiment would start at 8 am and finish work at around 6.30 pm, with a 1-hour lunch break.

Upon starting the experiment, a clear divide between those that elected to try the 4-day working week and those that didn’t become apparent. The deciding factor was childcare responsibilities. Those employees who had to accommodate the needs of children into their days, such as school drop-offs and pick-ups, were unable to meet the requirement for the increased hours Monday to Thursday. This divide created tension that only grew as the experiment continued.

Arianna Wilson was one of those employees who were not able to participate in the experiment, “I have two primary school-aged kids and a husband who works full time, so I can’t leave early and get home late four days per week. I already worked a slightly different week to the rest of the office, I usually take Friday afternoons off to pick up my kids and I make up the hours by staying a bit later or coming in a bit earlier on another day or two.”

In addition to this divide, having a large contingent of the team that was subsequently missing on Fridays meant that those who were in the office bore the brunt of the end-of-week workload. And crucially, there was a little backup for any crisis that occurred on a Friday. 

The experiment wasn’t working for most of those who’d opted in either. Most were finding that they were so tired by the longer hours that by Friday, they weren’t using that day to do anything fun, social, or productive anyway. And they certainly didn’t have time to attend to any personal matters during the preceding days of the week.

Priscilla was one of those who opted into the experiment, “The 4 day week was a bit exhausting with long hours. The extra days off were great, but the 4 day week was all about work with not a lot of life balance”, she explained. 

TANDEM’s Directors reconvened with staff and decided that the experiment wasn’t working. They then made the collective decision to trial a 9-day fortnight, with those that opted-in alternating their days off, so that half the team was absent on one Friday and the other half the following Friday, which was far better for resourcing. 

The new 9-day fortnight equates to an 8.3 hour day with staff working between the hours of 8.30 am and 6 pm and taking a 1-hour lunch break. 

TANDEM is now two months in and the 9-day fortnight is working a lot better than the 4-day week. Staff that has opted in are able to enjoy a day off per fortnight without a heroic amount of extra time being added to the preceding working days. And there is not so much of a divide between those who have and haven’t opted in. Based on staff feedback, the practice intends to maintain the 9-day fortnight for the foreseeable future. 

“I really like it. I feel refreshed after a long break. It allows a day to take care of life admin, appointments, cleaning – freeing up the weekend for the fun stuff. 

It allows long weekends and trips away as well as the opportunity to pursue interests outside of work, such as architecture-aligned activities and becoming more engaged in my community. 

“When I’m at work I can optimise work time when I’m already in the zone. There is less lead-in, pack-down time overall, and less time commuting. I do feel a bit guilty even though the hours are the same, though”, explained Priscilla. 

Those that haven’t opted in are happy with the situation too.

“The only drawback from my perspective is that when pretty much everyone else leaves late it’s hard for me to leave early, I feel like I’m abandoning them and/or slacking off. I think people appreciate being treated like responsible adults though, and having some time to do what they want/need to do’, explained Arianna. 

While there are a few drawbacks, the new arrangement has impacted some of TANDEM’s regular team activities such as their regular Friday night drinks, as it rules out the possibility of having the whole team together at once. The practice has found that Thursday night drinks don’t work as well as there is always a contingent for whom it is not the last day of the week. As an alternative, they have resolved to uphold a regular “family lunch” tradition to ensure the team gets some reliable bonding time. 

Director Tim Hill was at pains to point out that administratively, these experiments haven’t all been plain-sailing. Non-standard working days created a range of headaches for their bookkeeper.

“The other implication of either the 4-day week or the 9-day fortnight is the administration around how leave and public holidays are managed. Our bookkeeper created a complex spreadsheet that maps and quantifies the public holidays throughout the year and deducts any Friday public holidays from the overall hours worked for those on a 9-day fortnight so that everyone is on a level playing field. The process of getting to that point was quite fraught and we’d be keen to know whether there are tools out there that may help us to manage this aspect more easily”, he explained. 

Moving forward, the practice will be focusing its attention on establishing systems and creating efficiencies in order to increase productivity.

“The architecture industry has a long history of working excessive hours and not adopting efficiency gains learnt from other disciplines. We are interested in exploring a shorter working week that does not compromise the design process – this will be ongoing and will need monitoring and tweaking to be successful.” explained James

TANDEM Design Studio’s experiences provide interesting food for thought for the architecture industry. Their efforts show that there is scope to approach the working week differently, despite the demands of project-based work.


Read the full article in Australian Design Review