After over five years of running Delta Growth, a Toronto-based digital marketing agency with a six hour work day and twenty full time employees, I feel very confident in saying that this was a hilariously easy gift for my business partner and I to give our team. I know that from the outside the six hour work day may seem extreme, unlikely, or something that would never happen in our lifetimes.
Let’s talk about how and why we’ve used the six hour work day for over five years.
This article is part of a series on Delta Growth, a 20 FTE digital marketing agency I founded in 2017 with Brendan Philp, which I successfully exited in 2022. I'm writing this for my younger self, who, like you, had great intentions and talent and probably would have benefited from some of these ideas. Hey! I'm actively looking for a new home as a marketing executive (Director / VP of Digital, Growth or Demand Gen) for a company that is passionate about enriching human lives. If that's you, say hi. Have questions or interested in more articles like this? Connect with me on LinkedIn.
Why did we choose a six hour work day?
First off let’s talk about the traditional, forty hour work week, employee / employer agreement. Eight hours a day, five days a week. Each hour is either productive or part of a legally mandated break.
I don’t know about you but I’ve never been able to fulfil this agreement.
There was a time in my life where I came close, going from intern to managing six employees and around $3M in ARR for a digital marketing agency and building their SEO and CRO practices over three years. But even then I balanced my ten and twelve hour days with weeks where I could barely scrape coherent thoughts together for two or three hours a day. It wouldn’t surprise me if, even then, I was averaging three to four productive hours a day even if it felt like I was being overrun.
I’m fairly sure that all of us–employers, managers, employees, the cat sitting in your lap–acknowledge that the reality is that the average office worker puts in much, much less than the eight productive hours that we agreed to. This is not an unstudied belief:
- A study by Vouchercloud in 2016 suggests that we work productively for as few as two hours and 23 minutes a day.
- A study by Wisconsin School of Business suggests that number could be four and a half hours, and Iceland showed that even a small reduction of weekly hours (40 to 35) showed an increase in productivity.
It sure seems like my gut, my personal experience, my management experience, and my research all line up: we don’t work eight hours a day productively.
So what do we do with this information?
I think that all relationships should be built on clearly defined, well thought out, evolving expectations and boundaries rather than assumptions and the status quo. The employee / employer relationship is no exception.
When I started Delta Growth, I didn’t want to build the foundation of my relationship with my team on a lie. The team wasn’t going to work eight hours a day, and I didn’t expect them to. Switching from an eight hour work day to a six hour one felt like moving expectations in line with reality.
It felt both like the right thing to do, and the kind thing to do.
How did we still make money?
Marketing agencies belong to a general category of “Services” businesses. We sell employee time for money. Agencies make somewhere between 10% and 40% profit, much less than, say, SaaS, which is between 70% and 80%. So, we don’t have a ton of margin to begin with. There’s no giant slush fund of “Founder Money” that we can pull from in order to hand wave this whole 25% reduction in billable hours away.
We’re essentially left with a 25% deficit that we need to make up in the ways available to all agencies. A lot of these are available to any marketing team, or to any business at all.
- We didn’t lie. Almost every company that I’ve worked for, agency or otherwise, has required that I logged at least 40 hours before they approved my paycheck. Most companies asked me to have at least 80% billable hours. In a marketing agency context, this would mean that even though my employees may have been reading articles, watching videos or playing with their dogs, they would be calling that “billable time on Project Y.” Even if it’s not “billable time,” time sheets were intended as HR reporting for planning purposes and were, at the very least, misleading due to this process.
Delta Growth did not do this, and I think the value of our hourly rate increases significantly here compared to our competition.
- We didn’t use value based pricing. This is the practice of charging based on the value of the delivered product rather than some factor of time spent.
- We did increase our price. Essentially we increased our hourly rate by 15% compared to where we saw the industry average. This is such an odd sliding scale in practice, though, because our “blended rate” or the average billable rate has stayed the same for 5 years, we haven’t corrected our pricing for inflation. I feel like this increase in price wasn’t actually required, and it’s more a factor of our quality of work being worth the price. Also we should probably increase our blended rate!
- We did focus on quality, strategy-driven solutions. In solution selling or challenger selling, there’s a lot of discussion of what the client needs. This often leads to sales and contracts being sometimes detached from what the company can offer. We made sure that the work that we took–and therefore fees–were governed by what we could genuinely offer with a clear understanding of our processes, frameworks, strategists, specialists and resources available.
- We did increase task efficiency. If we reduce re-work and make executing and delivering tasks easy and clear, we’re more efficient. I’ve worked with four marketing agencies and seen the insides of a dozen more. SOPs, frameworks for key structures like strategy, tactics, execution, or any key subject matter expertise were almost completely non-existent in most cases. Strategy was not tied to tactics or hours, and as such couldn’t realistically be prioritized. Strategists and managers weren’t trained, there were just promoted. Project management was ad hoc, “per my last email, please rebuild client website by EOD.”
We built SOPs, streamlined frameworks for major repetitive activities, invested in Process over Practice, invested significantly in training, put a large focus on getting strategy and management right, and are religiously involved with project management (hey PM team!).
- We did drastically reduce emergencies and churn. Much of what makes us efficient also reduced emergencies and fires. Primarily in clients where we didn’t have to panic every other day because of poor work product going out the door, or being delivered late. This both reduced re-work, unbillable spent time putting out fires that we had set, and client churn because of these issues. Where I’ve seen emergencies being almost omni-present, at Delta Growth it was a shock every time one came up, and something we would make sure didn’t happen again.
- We did reduce employee turn-over. I believe that clear expectations, solid training and the ability to negotiate their workload helped our team want to stick around. Lack of project management and a belief that the eight hour day is all productive hours seems to force unrealistic expectations on the team which leads to no one winning.
- We did increase junior hiring and training programs. Over time our internal billable rate crept up because we were hiring, training and promoting our amazing team. This started me on the track of our junior program and then launching an intensive (yes, well paid and well trained) intern program, both of which have brought in fantastic people. With the right training these folks shot into the lower intermediate bracket fairly quickly and then needed a bunch of time to grow in repetitive practical experience, but this helped us bring our internal billable rate back down to good levels.
At the end of the day we’ve lived healthily in the range of a profitable marketing agency for over five years without a single month in the red.
What did I learn?
I came into the six hour work day thinking that it was one of the kindest decisions I could make for my team. Part of me saw it as an insurmountable difference between us and our competition with regards to staff–I’ve worked grueling days, weeks, and months with other marketing agencies where I’d be up until after midnight poking around the snack wall that was supposed to make me feel better about sacrificing my time when we ran into planning, delegation, hiring, or sales issues. I figured, this six hour work day is going to make us so unreachable with regards to hiring and retention that our advantage would blow everyone else out of the water. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it paints a picture.
My greatest intention was to be kind, but part of me always had that thought–I’ve ground myself down to the bone for other people, surely not asking people to do the same for me was an amazing gift! Yeah, it rings a bit hollow now that I write it out.
I learned that the six hour work day was this:
- Being more truthful in our relationship with our team.
- Allowing valued team members to protect their healthy boundaries, not pushing those midnight bone grinding sessions on them.
- Taking responsibility for management issues like resourcing and (in our case) sales rather than pushing those problems into this nebulous bucket of “employees aren’t working their full 40 hour weeks, just give it to them!”
Our expectations out of the gate with employees were slightly more in line with reality. Our billable hours to clients are much more truthful both with the six hour work day and because of our project management system. Our resourcing estimates and planning are much more accurate.
Overall, we all wound up happier.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
Many of the lessons that I learned in running Delta Growth had the six hour work day as a catalyst. You might have noticed that it spurred us into better management, better project management, better task delegation, better sales, better strategy, better SOPs, and more. I’ll be slowly writing out some of these experiences as I go. If you’re interested in following these thoughts, follow me on LinkedIn.
I've included a limited number of FAQs below. Feel free to comment on the LinkedIn thread with questions or thoughts and I'll try to include more details or what I gather from the thread in these FAQs below!
Advice & FAQs
Has a client ever expressed concern over the six hour work day?
I’ve heard clients ask about after hours support, but I haven’t heard anything about the six hour day. My cofounder and I would hop on calls once in a while after hours to handle issues, and if something really blew up (maybe once every six months?) we might need a media specialist to hop on for an hour after 4pm to pause or fix ad campaigns. I think if fires were higher frequency we’d need some kind of after hours support structure, but again that’s why we try to avoid them in the first place.
I didn’t always mention the six hour work day to clients but when I do it’s in the context of getting all of their hours from a bright eyed, bushy tailed team, not a bleary-eyed beleaguered consultant who just logged forty hours on some other client’s project.
Would you have made money money with an eight hour day than a six hour one?
I really don’t think so. I imagine that we would have had more turn-over (both in employees and clients) if anything.
I suspect that agencies and consultants that are currently committing fraud will lose money switching to a six hour day, because they won’t be able to ask employees to fill out forty hour time sheets. But uh… I mean… Good, right?
What is the reaction from employees to the six hour work day?
Short version, I think it helps a lot with retention, but not by itself. Paired with the mindset that causes an entire organization to move towards a six hour work day and general efficiency up and down the chain and between teams, I think you really get the full results, again, on retention.
I don’t think it had a huge impact on hiring until we started getting more and more referral candidates. The reason I think this is is because we’ve all seen “unlimited vacation” companies that work their employees to the bone. Companies with chefs and a snack wall that need you there at 10pm for some arcane ritual. Bonuses that don’t get paid for reasons outside of your control.
I’ll try to solicit some of the team’s feedback in the LinkedIn thread where this is posted and share some screenshots, but you can imagine that that’ll be a bit biased!