thoughtbot is a consulting company. We design and develop software for our clients four days per week, typically Monday through Thursday.
For almost a decade, we have dedicated Friday each week to “investment time”, self-directed time working on things other than client projects. Here’s how it works and what we’ve learned.
Our clients expect four days of work from each of us each week. They’re not expecting five days of work. One day per week for investment time creates slack.
We don’t stop work on Fridays; we prioritize other tasks (improving ourselves, the company, the community) that can be dropped if important client things come up. This is slack, and contributes to a sustainable pace.
The slack creates a safety net on Friday; if we take an extra long sales or hiring call, or had some unavoidable personal appointment during the week, or things didn’t go well, we can do our client a favor and give up some investment time on Friday at our discretion.
It’s much easier to meet expectations of four days out of five than five out of five.
We believe we generally accomplish as much in four days as other consulting companies achieve in five days. Other companies may have internal meetings, emails, or other work that are addressed sometime during the week, either by adding time to the week (increasing the chance of burnout) or subtracting from the time for the client (same total effort, with appropriate expectations and prices set up front).
Besides the advantages for our clients, knowing that we have built-in slack is a huge stress reliever. It gives us time to reflect on our work during the week and brush up on our skills that relate to the current or upcoming work on a project. A little regular space to breathe, away from client work, regularly, is refreshing.
Investment time is time for investment in ourselves, our company, and our community. Primarily this means doing something that interests us. We call the time an investment because when we make an investment, we expect to get a return on that investment.
We aren’t making effective use of investment time if we do not get something back. The something might be self-improvement which has returns for our clients, new products which diversify revenue, or community involvement which improves the community.
We take a long term approach to investment but it isn’t “free time” without an expected payoff. It isn’t time to work on personal projects or come in late and chill all day.
Here are some examples of things people at thoughtbot have done during investment time:
- contributed to open source software
- wrote a blog post
- recorded a podcast
- organized a community event
- read a book on a design technique
- completed a tutorial on a new programming language or framework
- modified their laptop environment or dotfiles to improve productivity
- created internal tools to streamline a hiring, management, finance, sales, marketing, or operations process
- created, improved, or supported a product like Upcase, Hound, and FormKeep
- interviewed candidates to join the team
- painted a mural in our office
- proposed changes to how the company functions
There are frequently asked questions that come up from clients, new hires, and folks we’ve spoken to who want to implement a similar routine at their own companies.
Do employees like it?
Investment time is one of the most cherished practices we have at thoughtbot. We regularly hear that people apply to work here because of it.
Do clients like it?
The clients who hire us all understand it. Their level of appreciation for it varies. Many see the benefits listed above such as very consistent effort and energy, and a well-prepared and focused team on their project.
We do lose sales because of the policy. There are some companies where it represents a cultural mismatch with us.
Is it hard to make an impact in one day?
This is probably the biggest downside to the structure. Breaking up a long-running task across many days causes a context switching cost when you need to refocus. If you want to write a book or organize a complicated event, you have to expect it may take you months to complete during investment time.
We have tried to address the “impact” question with experiments like “what if we had one investment week every five weeks?” We deemed that one a failure due to:
- increased difficulty in scheduling projects
- a feeling of being disconnected to thoughtbot teammates not on the same client project as yourself
- longer breaks between customer support on products or open source projects building up stress and awaiting issues
What if we had general “20% time”?
Google made famous a very similar concept called “20% time.” You can find out some of the problems with it by… Googling it.
The primary problem is that if no one knows when their colleagues’ 20% is assigned, it’s difficult to mutually respect it. The perceived urgency of tasks is hard to measure and the time becomes unprotected.
By assigning the time to a single day, everyone’s expectations are set.
What about holidays, vacations, sick days, and other PTO?
By default, any PTO is subtracted from client work and investment time is protected but each person uses their judgement on a case-by-case basis whether to subtract an investment day in order to focus on client work instead.
What about 1-on-1s? Sales calls? …?
There is another category that isn’t PTO and has been a tougher gray area for us over the years. This category has these attributes:
- the person is not making the choice to use their investment time on the task
- there is work that needs to be done and someone has to do it
We have leaned heavily on our “use your best judgement” policy to address these.
The longer-term solutions to these situations have been to:
- hire people for specialized roles such as office management
- assign designers and developers to a “sales rotation” for three months or so in order to handle that specialized work
- reduce days on client work from four to three for directors so they are able to dedicate time to hiring and 1-on-1s or performance reviews with their team
If you’ve ever wondered about where our open source projects, blog posts, or podcasts come from, you now know a major reason: investment time.
If you are looking to solve similar things at your organization, give Friday investment time a try on an experimental basis to see if it can work for you. It took us about six months to transition the whole organization to investment time. You might be surprised!