Of course you like the idea of working less--and, of course, your employees love the idea--but you probably think there's no way to radically cut your hours without also radically trimming the performance of your company.

Ryan Carson, co-founder and CEO of Treehouse, would like to disagree. His fast-growing, VC-backed tech-training startup now has more than 100 employees--all of whom work just four days a week. That's right, the whole company, including Carson, puts in just 32 hours a week. And yes, you could probably do it too, he insists.

"I think most CEOs are workaholics and they love their business more than they love their family, and it's sad. I get it, they find validation in it. But I personally think that's a poor choice because I think you can have both. I think you can run a wonderful, world-changing business, and you can have a great family, but you have to choose to do that," Carson told Inc.com in an interview.

Making the four-day week work

Carson's commitment to working a shockingly small number of hours (at least by tech industry standards) started at the very beginning of his entrepreneurial journey back in 2006, when his company consisted of just him, his wife, and one employee. "My wife and I just had this thought, 'Hey, I wonder if it's possible to work less and still be effective?' We tried it and it was great," he says. He's stuck to a 32-hour week ever since.

Which isn't to say that no one ever has to put in longer hours at Treehouse. "The four-day workweek is great but the only we can make it work long-term is if you have the ability to occasionally work very hard and long," Carson explains. "What we do is put the company into sprint mode when we see an opportunity or a threat that we have to act on quickly." During sprint mode employees put in 50 to 60 hours a week for a month or two before reverting to their usual pattern of work-free Fridays. (Customer service folks always work in shifts, with one team handling customer queries Monday to Thursday and another Friday to Monday.)

Not only do you need flexibility to make a four-day week work, you also need the right people. Carson stresses his team's "almost spiritual" commitment to the company's mission of making job training affordable. But handily, Treehouse's extreme approach to work-life balance is a huge benefit when it comes to attracting the sort of super committed, highly talented team you need to be successful with a 32-hour week.

"We can out-recruit everybody. We have an ace up our sleeve, which is the four-day week. It's been proven to work in the past. We've been able to hire people away from very competitive, exciting companies because of that," Carson claims, noting that this is the reason he intends on keeping the 32-hour week in place as the company scales.

Setting a sustainable pace

Compressing what normal companies get done in 40-plus hours into a mere four days does affect the way Treehouse works--and even how much employees can get done. But Carson is adamant that a four-day week doesn't mean less productivity, just a different pace and greater focus.

"It is really intense. At a normal job, you have this pace to your week where you kind of lumber along. You hit Friday, and by lunchtime you're kind of done. You start getting less productive. We don't have that luxury," says Carson. "It's basically a tradeoff that we make--we're going to have a really intense week that's really exciting but packed and then we have the luxury of not working on Friday. It means you get a rough time for screwing around."

Not only does the team need to work particularly hard during the hours they're at work, they also need to think more carefully about exactly how they spend those hours. "It forces us to say no to a lot of things, and I actually think that's a good thing. We do less but we do it better," Carson insists.

In short, a 32-hour week might sound like a slacker's paradise but the Treehouse team is as hard-charging as any in tech. It's just that the team also wants to be able to set a pace they can actually maintain. "We absolutely do want to win, but we want to be able to do it at a pace that will allow us to run the race for a long time," says Carson.

It's an approach that seems to be working. Many people on his team have been with the company since it's founding--an impressive feat in a burnout-prone industry. Plus, Carson gets to have a leisurely breakfast every Friday with his wife. "My wife and I have a whole long day date. It's magical," he says.

Give it a try

If you're tempted to see if you could achieve something similar at your company, Carson encourages you to go for it by all means, but recommends you feel your way forward slowly. "I would encourage people to try it by saying, 'Hey, let's do it for one month,'" he advises. By presenting a 32-hour week to your team as a short-term experiment, you're mitigating the risk and setting expectations for staff that this is a special treat rather than the new normal. That way, if you want to reverse course, you can.

Is all that's standing between you and a pile of pancakes every Friday morning your workaholism?

Published on: Dec 8, 2015