It’s common in the industry to see developers treated as fungible resources—as if you can swap one out for another with no impact. But humans aren’t fungible! Each person you work with has a unique set of skills, experiences, and capabilities. When you treat your dev team as simply replaceable cogs, you set yourself up to waste time and money.
It’s a well-researched fact that throughout a typical forty-hour work week, most workers are not able to actually accomplish forty hours of actual work. In The Mythical Man Month, now an industry standard, Fred Brooks shows how simply adding more developers to a delayed project simply delays it even further.
So, if speeding up your project isn’t as simple as throwing more hours or developers onto the project, what can you do to add capacity?
There’s an upper limit to what an individual can accomplish in a given work week, and even your best, most productive developers will hit that limit before forty hours.
As a result, our entire industry is out of sync when it comes to the trade of dollars for meaningful time spent on development work. Billing any programmer at forty hours a week means you’re paying for far less than what you think, and everyone just shrugs that off as a cost of doing business.
To get back in sync, more hours or more developers isn’t the answer. Many in the industry are moving to a four-day work week, or thirty-two billable hours. While that may solve the issue of wasted time, it doesn’t do much to level up a team’s capabilities.
At Tighten, we have a way of working less hours (and billing less!) to each client, but making each of those hours more valuable to our clients. It’s called 20% time.
20% time is how we structure our work weeks here at Tighten. Our developers spend four days working on client projects. On the fifth day, what we call 20% time, developers are not booked on client work.
Instead, on these days, the team is free to focus on their own growth and contributions to the broader programming community. This is valuable — not only to the team itself — but also to the projects we work on.
We’ve written extensively on the benefits 20% offers to employees–how it can decrease burnout and prevent turnover, how it makes them happier and more content, and how it is a powerful tool for career growth. We care about these things for our team members, but those benefits are also passed on to our clients in three specific ways:
When our developers intentionally set aside eight hours a week to work on their own learning and professional projects, it has a powerful impact on their abilities on client projects, as coders, leaders, and thinkers.
The hours our team spends writing, researching, and building and playing with new tools results in finely-tuned skills and deep banks of knowledge. Our team stays well informed about broad movements and ideas in the industry, learning from and interacting with leading thinkers in their learning and open source development time. As they build tools and write blog posts and live stream and deliver talks, their ability to reason and communicate grow and flourish beyond that of any common developer. This serves their career trajectory well, and client projects reap the benefits, too; there are no programmers out there with a broader set of experiences and knowledge.
Our developers often use 20% time to learn about tools and methodologies they haven’t had a chance to experience in their day-to-day programming.
For example, we use Filament and Livewire on many client projects today, but the first knowledge our team developed of these tools was a team member spending 20% time working with them on open source projects. That initial 20% time foray into those tools has led to an entire team confident in working with those technologies; even if they’re not a Filament expert, they can reach out to the Filament expert in our Slack and have an answer in minutes.
This growth in 20% time leads to less time-wasting experimentation on client projects. No client ever has to be the recipient of a disappointing message like “we tried GraphQL on your project and then learned at the end it was a terrible tool for this use case;” we figured that out long before we came to determining that client’s needs.
It might seem counterintuitive that a 32-hour work week with one day of 20% time is more productive than a typical 40-hour work week. But it lines up with what we, and many others, have seen: no one has forty hours of fully dedicated heads-down work in them. It’s just not how people are built.
Reducing the billable week by 20% doesn’t decrease the amount of work getting done; it just concentrates it into four days. The fifth day of the week is certainly full of intentional learning, but it’s also a space for our team to work on passion projects, lead initiatives, and grow; it gives them time and space to decompress, organize, and recalibrate. This results in a team with less burnout and lower turnover. Because of this, four days of client work is more manageable and productive because the team on your project is refreshed and ready to hit the ground running come Monday.
If a professionally-developed, highly skilled, and more productive team isn’t enough to tell you that 20% is a value-add, not a detriment, we probably won’t convince you with one more paragraph. But hear us out:
The impact on your workflows and deadlines is net positive. Just because our 32-hour work week has eight hours “less” than the other guy’s, it doesn’t mean you're getting less or lower quality work.
In fact, it’s highly likely you are paying for the same amount of work getting done. Our philosophy builds in one day a week for growth. The idea is that if you spend 20% of your time growing and learning and resetting, the remaining 80% is more productive.
It sounds idealistic, but in our experiment, we’ve seen the results that confirm our hypothesis. We’ve been doing it since 2016. If it wasn’t working, we would have scrapped it. The quality of the work matters more than the quantity of hours worked. Developers with the privilege of 20% time are able to stay on top of their workload, on top of current industry trends — and most importantly: on top of your project.