Flexi Friday and the Wide Open Road

Drew McLaughlin

Sr. Director, Engineering

Drew on motorcycle_FINAL.jpeg

A four-day work week enables Drew McLaughlin to disconnect from work, get on his motorcycle, and just ride. Drew, who is senior director of engineering at WANdisco in the United Kingdom, took advantage of his free day by taking a road trip with his buddy Ricky Nos to North West 200, Ireland’s largest motorcycle race. The two friends took the picturesque Causeway Coastal Route to and from the event. It was on the outward leg of their journey that they racked up 350 miles.

Riding across the wide open spaces of Ireland is just one of Drew’s many adventures. Another is exploring new places. Nine years ago, Drew’s partner, Colleen, accepted an offer in Sheffield, England to study for her PhD in nuclear science. So, Drew, who was living in Belfast at the time and working as a senior software engineer for a subsidiary of Liberty Mutual Group, interviewed with WANdisco, accepted the company’s offer, and packed his bags for Sheffield — an opportunity Drew saw as an adventure to go somewhere new.

The couple hadn’t planned on staying in Sheffield, but they grew to love the city and quickly made new friends. They both had also just learned to paraglide and appreciated the fact that the U.K. has one of the biggest paragliding clubs in the country, not far from Sheffield.

Shortly after settling into his new home, Drew joined WANdisco. While it was the first company to which he applied, he was quickly drawn to WANdisco because of the company’s culture. In particular, Drew was impressed by their interest in him as a person and not just in his engineering skills. “They were very keen on seeing if I would fit in with the company culture and would enjoy working there,” recalls Drew.

The “fit” worked. Drew has been with WANdisco for nine years. He started as a software engineer and has held a number of roles, including senior software engineer and team lead. But it wasn’t until Drew saw what he calls a “little gap” in leadership that he made a conscious decision to transition to an engineering manager role, where he began focusing more on the people while keeping a sharp eye on the technical aspects of the job. “There’s lots of really clever people writing code and I thought, ‘There's no one focusing on things like team structures, the best software development methodologies, and hiring processes,’ ” says Drew, who currently is senior director of engineering.

Empowered teams are productive teams

Getting one day off a week — whether just to relax or take a three-day weekend — without having to dip into vacation time is a major benefit for Drew, who not only likes spending time on his motorcycle, but also enjoys running, cycling, rowing, and hanging out with Colleen, who happens to get a free Friday every two weeks.

On the professional front, the four-day work week forces Drew to stay focused and better manage his time. “If you can find more efficient ways of working, just do it in four days and take Friday off," he explains, noting that on occasion, he will log time on a Friday morning when things are a bit more quiet to check some items off of his to-do list.

Yet when it comes to his team, Drew is sensitive to their needs and makes a point of asking if they are getting to spend Fridays doing the things they love. The overwhelming answer is “yes,” he says, with an occasional “yeah,” laughs Drew, referring to the rare time when someone puts in time on a Friday.

However, having the option not to work on Friday gives Drew and his team the freedom to prioritize their own schedules, causing them to become more protective of their time. For example, if someone is scheduled to attend a meeting but has a lot of work to do, they will carefully consider if their presence is really necessary; if not, a team delegate might go in their place.

Improved time management is another benefit of the new working model. For instance, prior to the change, the team typically started at 9:30 a.m. Now, some employees choose to start earlier. The idea behind this, says Drew, is that an extra hour of highly focused, productive work each morning can quickly compensate for less-effective time spent on a normal Friday in a five-day week. “People are focusing on the productivity side of things, rather than on spending too much time doing things that don’t drive value.”

Work and life: A balancing act

Not only are happy employees productive employees, they are also more balanced when it comes to work and life. Outside of his physical hobbies, Drew sees to his emotional well-being as well by turning off the work faucet a day earlier. “By Saturday and Sunday, I've completely disconnected from work,” he says. Previously, by the time Drew left work on Friday — even though his work was finished — he’d wake up on Saturday with a few things still on his mind. Then by Sunday, he’d be relaxed. Now, he can shut down his mind on Friday, maybe make a few notes, and then disconnect for two whole days. Some members on Drew’s team, however, have found a different way to unwind from the work week: They use their free day to spend more time doing things together, such as indoor rock climbing. What started out as a day off from work has become an opportunity to cement social ties with peers.

Lesson learned: Shift expectations

Drew believes he and his team have adapted well to this new way of working, not to mention living. But in the beginning, they hit a couple of road bumps. One area that was initially impacted was the software engineering lifecycle, in which certain meetings and events occur every two weeks, such as code and product demos given to internal WANdisco stakeholders. Once working patterns changed, the teams had one less day in their weekly schedule to prepare for the internal demos, and on occasion, they would find themselves rushing to be ready in time. “It took a little time for everyone to make the mental shift of moving their expectations forward in the week to make sure that they had everything finished in time,” says Drew. “Now, everyone accounts for Friday in their work cycle calculations.”

The four-day week is just an extension of WANdisco’s trust-based culture that empowers its people to work in more flexible ways.

A 4-day work week in one – okay, two – words

For Drew, the overall benefits of the four-day work week are derived from WANdisco's culture, which he sums up in two words: empowerment and trust. Empowerment is an extension of the way the engineering teams at WANdisco have always worked. Drew uses a recent interview with a potential hire as an example. The candidate explained his company’s use of software to track both how much time the engineers spend in their browsers (versus writing code) and how many lines of code they write. This productivity model is the opposite of the way that WANdisco treats its engineers. “We form teams of engaged people,” says Drew. “We don't ask them to clock in or out, and we certainly don't put monitoring software onto their laptops.” Instead, Drew tells the team which problem(s) needs to be solved and asks them how they are going to solve it, providing them with the tools and technologies — such as the Scrum framework — for getting things done.

Drew believes that if you give intelligent people interesting problems and instill in them trust, they will form self-motivated teams that can tackle the work. The four-day week is just an extension of WANdisco’s trust-based culture that empowers its people to work in more flexible ways. “If you can find efficiencies in your day, be really productive with your time, make sure that you're only going to meetings that you need to attend, and work with new tools or new technologies to increase productivity, then don't come in on a Friday,” recommends Drew.

Drew admits that there will be people for whom a shorter work week doesn't work. “Some people are happier in a job where there's a nice conveyor belt of work to do day-in and day-out, where you know you've succeeded because you've done your work in however many hours. WANdisco has never been and will never be like that because we're constantly solving new and interesting problems. It's just about giving people the freedom to work the way they want.”

Having the freedom to work in a way that makes people productive, empowered, trusted, and happy is an important selling feature when interviewing potential candidates. So how does Drew convey this message to potential hires in order to counter the potential impression that working less hours equates to putting in less effort? “I talk about the team culture and explain that it’s not about which days of the week you work or how many hours you work; it's about the team hitting its goals — it’s about outcomes, not output,” he explains.

And the Scrum framework plays an important role in the team’s commitment to doing a certain amount of work, which is a decision at which they arrive as a group. From there, their goal for the following week is to hit that milestone. Drew believes that the four-day work week is a powerful tool for recruitment. “When people review the company’s benefits, and the four-day week in particular, they understand that we get it — that is, our culture and the trust we put in the teams. I think this really sets us apart,” he adds.

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