ECOH is Now Officially a Four-Day Week Company: Interview with ECOH President, Mark Lai

Mark Lai & Naomi Pitcher | June 2024

Naomi Pitcher, Marketing Specialist with ECOH’s Business Development team, sat down with Mark Lai to chat about the decision to permanently implement a 4-day week, after trialing it for just over a year. Here are Mark’s answers to the burning questions surrounding the trial’s success.

What drove this decision to make the 4-day workweek permanent at ECOH?

ECOH has always aimed to be progressive, prioritizing the well-being of our employees and the company’s growth. The initial push for this decision came during the pandemic, which presented significant challenges. With the world shutting down, our projects dropped dramatically, and we had to decide whether to lay off staff or shut down temporarily. Instead, we opted to spread the load by reducing everyone’s workweek and compensation by 20%, with executives taking a 40% cut. This approach enabled us to cope with the initial shock of the pandemic without any layoffs, staying true to ECOH’s ethos of Team and collective responsibility.

We implemented this 20% reduction in time and compensation for three or four months, while remaining open for business as an essential service. When the situation improved, we restored full salaries, retaining all of our employees. This decision, to spread the load, embodied ECOH’s spirit of shared effort and resilience.

The 4-day workweek by extension aligns with our values and vision. It’s about optimizing work-life balance, making ECOH a great place to work, and positioning us at the forefront of our industry.

Was the “spread the load” concept well-received across the company?

It was well-received. Employees appreciated the shared effort to keep everyone employed. However, as the market reopened, we began losing some staff to competitors who had laid employees off during the pandemic and now, needing to ramp back up, were offering higher salaries. This unexpected outcome prompted us to explore new retention strategies.

We explored various strategies, including a 4-day week, but we were not ready. Instead, we tried other retention measures, though none were particularly innovative. A year later, we revisited the idea of a 4-day week after seeing other Canadian companies successfully trialing it. We contacted 4-Day Week Global™ and decided to join their network of companies trialing the 4-Day week all over the world.  Even then, we didn’t see any companies in the environmental consulting sector like ours anywhere trialing the 4-day week.  I think ECOH is the first to do so.  Which is both exciting and a little anxiety-provoking.

 What were the biggest challenges or surprises during the trial?

One big surprise was the amount of initial pushback and trepidation. People don’t like change, which I had to learn the hard way. Embracing change, with a thought-out plan, is, (in my opinion) critical for business survival. I found that many (in our conservative, engineering, and scientifically minded industry) prefer to stick to what’s been tried and tested, which fosters anxiety toward new approaches.

Was it difficult to get people on board initially?

Yes, initially. Some people (both internally and externally) projected catastrophic outcomes. I asked the management team to identify hurdles they anticipated would emerge and then I asked them to find solutions to overcome those hurdles. Many found it easy to identify the hurdles but struggled to find solutions. However, when asked if there were any objections to trying the 4-Day Week for six months, everyone on the management team agreed to give it a try.  After the first six months, much of the data was positive, but we didn’t yet feel we had enough data on the financial impact to make it a permanent change.  So, we extended the trial for another six months.

 How does the 4-day week work with a service model that includes 24/7 rapid environmental response?

The 4-day week isn’t only about taking Fridays off. I like to say “32 is the new 40”. At ECOH, the four-day week concept is more about getting 40 hours of productivity in 32 hours. We maintain 24/7 client availability through a rotating schedule. Different departments manage their hours flexibly, ensuring continuous service. Some work four days, others spread 32 hours over five days. When emergencies arise, or clients need to contact us, we are always available. And whenever there is a need to work beyond the 32 hours, we have found that employees are happy to step up and do what needs to be done. Employees working beyond 32 hours, when necessary, are compensated with overtime pay.

How have clients responded to this move? Has it changed over the trial period?

There has been very little negative reaction from clients. Initially, some were unsure if they could contact us on Fridays, so we were quick to communicate that nothing would change for them. As I mentioned, our work model doesn’t shut down the office on Fridays. We reduced the work week to 32 hours while ensuring availability through rotating schedules. Clients have accepted this; some have even applauded the benefits it provides our employees and expressed a desire for their workplace to follow suit. Honestly, many of our clients remain unaware that ECOH is a 4-Day Week company because we have worked hard to ensure our service and response times have either been maintained or improved throughout the trial.

ECOH conducted employee surveys throughout the 4DW trial period. What were the key results?

I was pleasantly surprised by how many employees embraced the objective of 100-80-100 and suggested many innovative efficiencies. The message is ECOH pays 100% salary for 80% of the time, with an expectation of 100% output. This message of 100% output in 80% of the time did create some initial anxiety. But, as time went on, the understanding grew that this was less about individual employees working 20% faster, and more about systemic changes that everyone could contribute to. Employees would offer solutions to eliminate unnecessary tasks, ideas to create efficiency, trial new technologies, and embrace the new way of working. We’re also researching and implementing automation for perfunctory tasks to improve efficiency without overburdening staff. I’m proud of the way ‘ECOHites’ have embraced this new way of work and made the four-day week their own.

As for the surveys, we saw statistically significant improvements in self-reported job satisfaction, work-life balance, and life satisfaction. On the flip side, there were significant reductions in self-reported hours worked per week, burnout, sleep problems, and fatigue. Overall, we can say with confidence that employees are satisfied, and the change has been positive.

One message I want to emphasize is that this initiative is not designed to make ECOH a place where you don’t have to work hard. If anything, it’s the opposite. The message is: “when you’re working, you’re working” and when you don’t need to be working, unplug and live as free of work constraints as projects and clients allow. While I’m not an expert, I’ve read enough expert studies and books to understand that those who can really make this ‘work hard/recharge’ balance work, are able to come back readier and happier to perform tasks that need to be done at work. And so, we tend to see, if not the exact same level of productivity, actually an improvement within a 32-hour work week than a 40-hour work week.

The idea is really to move away from non-stop work as a status symbol in our culture and industry. Yes, we need to work hard and demonstrate a commitment to doing what it takes when it’s required, but greater long-term efficiencies, successes, and innovations can be gained through optimizing the work-life balance as best as the industry you’re in allows.

How has the four-day workweek impacted revenue?

Surprising as this may seem, there has been no negative financial impact. And that’s a testament to the ECOH Team as a whole working together: from the on-site technicians, through to the project managers, senior managers, and administrative and support staff. We still have work to do to make the four-day week as successful as it can be.  We are continually learning and improving, which aligns with our commitment to ongoing development and excellence. It’s the ECOH way.

What would be your message to other businesses?

My message to my competitors is: “Don’t do it!”

I joke because the longer they take to realize that the four-day week is the future, the longer ECOH will enjoy a competitive advantage.

But seriously, the evidence is compelling: employee satisfaction has increased, we’ve maintained high client satisfaction, and there has been no negative financial impact. Improved productivity, innovation, and work-life balance are significant benefits. We are always looking to do what’s best for our employees, but we also made this decision because it makes business sense to do so.

What does the future hold for ECOH and the Environmental Consulting Industry?

Well, I wish I had a crystal ball.  But that’s a great question!

For those in this industry who don’t like change, I think they are in for a bit of an uncomfortable ride because there is going to be a lot of change. The future holds many disruptions, such as adapting to the hybrid workplace and advancements in Artificial Intelligence and other technologies. Embracing change and adapting to new realities will be crucial.

We’re focused on optimizing work-life balance and leveraging technology to improve the way we work. Change is inevitable, and ECOH is committed to evolving to best serve our clients and employees.

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