Uplevel makes software tools to help engineering teams better measure how developers use their time and how they could best avoid burning out. Now the Seattle startup is taking a page from its own playbook and the products that it makes.
Uplevel is planning to implement a four-day workweek to enhance the productivity and happiness of its employees, part of a trend that’s gaining traction among various companies and even in Congress amid the pandemic.
The 27-person spinout of Madrona Venture Labs permanently abandoned a downtown Seattle office and went fully remote due to the pandemic. Like many companies, Uplevel has spent the last couple years trying to maintain a positive workplace culture while managing the demands of virtual collaboration.
“The thing that I kept being really nervous about is the mental health aspect of burnout and just working Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting all day long,” Uplevel CEO and co-founder Joe Levy said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I got my stuff done.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘I did it and I’m not physically burnt out doing it.’”
Uplevel turned to virtual happy hours and other social gatherings that became popular for teams removed from day-to-day physical interaction. And it experimented with giving employees mental health days, or a full week off during the summer and again at Thanksgiving.
Employees responded well to that. And after the holidays, to start the new year, Uplevel will be giving everyone Fridays off.
The company, founded by an organizational psychologist and technology executives with shared experience at Microsoft, arrived at the decision after examining research around the four-day workweek and surveying employees about their needs and wants.
The experiment will run though the first quarter and include monthly check-ins and analysis of how things are going, and an examination at the end of the quarter about whether the extended weekends will continue.
The idea of a 4-day work week is not new, but has gained momentum over the past few years. Companies such as Shake Shack and Kickstarter have recently experimented with the idea.
Two years ago Microsoft introduced a program called “Work Life Choice Challenge” in Japan, shutting down offices every Friday during one month. As time at work was cut, Microsoft saw productivity — measured by sales per employee — jump by 40% compared to the same period from the year before.
Employees embrace change
Lauren Franklin, Uplevel’s director of customer success, has been at the company two years and she’s excited about the change, and the fact that the company will be diligent about measuring impact. She said friends and family have told her they wish their companies would do something similar.
“It’s exciting to be a part of a company that is challenging the way we work and I can’t wait to share back the results with people who have been so curious to try it,” Franklin said.
She said it’s unrealistic to anticipate that no work task will come up on a Friday and that managing expectations is part of the process.
“The only part I’m nervous for is potentially adapting ‘back’ if the experiment fails,” Franklin said. “My team has some really cool ideas for how they’re planning to use that time and as a manager, I’m nervous about how to support the team if they do lose those opportunities.”
Software engineering manager Brian Park called it “super cool” to work at a place that would challenge the assumptions about what makes for a productive week. Some on his team have expressed concerns about whether four days of work will just be packed with more stress.
“I want us to do this process right, and part of that means that we’ll be learning and adjusting along the way,” Park said.
Both he and Franklin are excited about the prospect of increased family time and personal projects. Franklin has a 5-month-old son who is going to get more 1-on-1 time; Park will dive deeper into his hobby of brewing traditional Korean rice alcohol.
‘Another arrow in our quiver’
Seattle startup Volt, makers of a fitness training app platform, also employs 27 distributed people and shifted to a four-day workweek that it calls “Flex Fridays” in July 2020.
CEO and co-founder Dan Giuliani said it’s been “pretty fascinating” and overwhelmingly a “very positive experience.” The change has positioned Volt as a “human-centric company,” he said.
“The best part is the impact we’re able to have on the well-being of our employees, while still pushing toward our goals as a company and as a team,” Giuliani said. “What started as a schedule has morphed into a comprehensive and holistic organizational philosophy, which both creates and results in increased openness, trust, and transparency across the board.”
The move hasn’t been without challenges and lessons learned. There’s no expectation to work a fifth day, but there is an expectation for employees to continue to perform at a high level. Those on external-facing teams such as sales, marketing and biz dev, have had to be flexible with their availability. And Giuliani said the time crunch can be tough.
“When you remove 20% of the time in the office, you naturally have to be more efficient with the remainder,” he said. “For us, that meant reassessing each of our standing meetings and rewiring our approach to time-management, which are both valuable processes to undertake for any organization.”
Something’s working. Volt was named this week among the “Best Employers in Sports” of 2021 by the industry media platform Front Office Sports. The list is generated solely by employee feedback and Front Office said the four-day week has made Volt “one of the most sought-after employers in sport.”
Giuliani agreed, and said the shorter week has definitely impacted recruiting in a positive way.
“The reality as a startup is that we’re always looking for a recruiting edge over the big tech players, so the four-day schedule is another arrow in our quiver,” he said.
‘It’s an employee’s market’
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has said that his early days at the company were “kind of maniacal.” He didn’t believe in weekends and until he was about 30, didn’t believe in vacations at all. He even famously memorized the license plates of his co-workers to track their comings and goings and see if they were living up to his hard-charging standard.
Uplevel’s Levy spent four years at Microsoft and now he’s CEO at a startup that is about to give people a three-day weekend. He believes the working world has evolved.
“I’m not trying to criticize Bill Gates for how he did that early on, clearly he had some success,” Levy said. “But look, it’s an employee’s market.
“My aim with Uplevel is not to be the top payer of all of Seattle in terms of compensation … I think we’re very fair in that. But I do want to have a culture that people absolutely love and I think experimenting with new ways to work is a big part of that.”
Working more hours to get the same output is a factory machine way of thinking, Levy said, and humans in high-end, creative jobs are not wired that way. The belief is that if people are excited to come to work it will drive retention and culture and mirror the products that Uplevel already works on.
And Levy, who for his part plans to spend more Fridays skiing at Crystal Mountain, also stresses the recruiting angle. The pandemic already shifted how we work and companies will also have to shift the mentality around ping-pong, kegerators and other office amenities as key attractions.
“I don’t have an office anymore but I have a four-day workweek,” he said. “I think this could be a real differentiator for Uplevel in our employment, in our culture and in our product.
“We believe it will work. That’s why we’re trying it.”