At Grand Challenges, 4-day week ‘very much tied to performance’

HR leader Tracy Smith discusses 'amazing attraction and retention strategy' of shortened workweek

At Grand Challenges, 4-day week ‘very much tied to performance’

“If you're using it to mend your culture, you're treating a symptom — you're not actually getting at the at the issues at hand.”

So says HR leader Tracy Smith, in talking about any organization’s decision to switch to a four-day workweek.

As senior director of people and culture at Grand Challenges Canada, Smith joined the organization about a year after the change. The nonprofit funds innovators and solutions to critical health and development challenges in low- and middle-income countries and Canada.

“A lot of it was recognizing the team had grown significantly during COVID. So we had a big team that is just filled with purpose, and…  because of the type of work that we do, it's emotionally taxing, it's a lot of really well-meaning work — but it can take a toll,” she says.

“So I think that the leadership at the time was looking [at] ‘What are different ways that we can innovate in terms of employee benefits?’ And innovation… is at the core of our culture, it's at the core of what we stand for.”

In the end, the benefit has been “very much embraced by a ton of folks,” says Smith. “We see it as an amazing attraction and retention strategy for our best and brightest.”

Tying four-day week to performance

But before introducing the four-day approach, Grand Challenges did their due diligence, says Smith, “in terms of making sure that we were not only getting employee input, but stakeholder input, partner input, to make sure everyone was comfortable with that.”

Surprisingly, there was little resistance, with many people both complimentary and envious, she says.

“What's benefited us too is it's not an anomaly anymore, you absolutely hear about it in the news from a number of organizations, not only just in Canada, but in the United States and globally as well. It’s something that a lot of modern organizations are looking at. And so I think… it wasn't a shock to them, they saw it as a really forward-looking platform and idea for our business to take on.”

The four-day week is now going to be offered as an annual employee benefit, which will be renewed on an annualized basis, she says.

Why? For one, so people understand this is an “amazing” benefit that’s not enjoyed by many of their peers and friends.

“It's something that [is] still very much tied to performance and to making sure that our core business is about improving and saving lives,” says Smith.

“If it ever got to the point that we were not able to perform to the best of our abilities, we'd be looking at all the levers within our benefit offering… [so] every year, we want to touch base with our stakeholders, with our funders, with our innovators to make sure it's working for them — that's tremendously important, not just our employees.”

Reworking the traditional workweek

At Grand Challenges Canada, the four-day week consists of 32 hours, so people are working 80% of the time but delivering 100% of the work.

So how does that work? The organization has automated many annual processes and also been purposeful in terms of how people spend their time together, she says.

Working with the hybrid model, with some people working at home while others come to the office, the non-profit is thoughtful about its meetings, and how those are used, says Smith.

“We're also thoughtful about booking focus time, so that we actually have time to really get our heads down and work completed on the schedules that we deem right for us. And so every Friday is deemed a flex day. And that [means] some people… just like to work because there's nothing scheduled around you. Or if you have no work, then you are able to go and do what your heart desires.”

It's also about embracing and reflecting Grand Challenges’ culture of innovation, and constantly iterating, she says.

“Technology is a huge piece of this; when we are on calls with each other, it's not static, we are often working in collaborative tools at the same time. So we'll have things onscreen, we're all co-editing at the same time so… [we] leave a meeting and the documentation is ready, everyone's aware of takeaways.”

With the flex Fridays, if there are any urgent tasks, people are reachable by text. But if they want to be completely shut off from work, they take a vacation day.

Attraction and retention through four-day weeks

The four-day benefit also works well for different family dynamics, says Smith.

“This enables different types of strong family structures and schedules to be looked after and not [be] an impediment to someone's career,” she says.

As an example, a lot of people can get chores or errands done on a Friday when kids may be at camp or school.

“One of the best benefits has been improved family time and quality time which is great, because, at the end of the day, you want someone to bring their best self to work and the recharged self to work on that Monday morning,” says Smith.

These days, organizations need to think creatively, she says, “and also recognize that… just like consumerism, employees will demand certain things going forward. And we need to think differently as to what type of organizations we want to establish to attract the best talent and to keep them.”

Speaking personally, Smith says the shortened week was definitely a factor when she decided to join Grand Challenges.

“It's less to me about the Friday — it's this notion of autonomy, the ability to own your schedule to a certain extent, to be trusted within that framework, to have the flexibility. It's a really high-performance team and that trust and autonomy really helps enable that.”

That’s not to say the four-day week is the only reason Smith joined Grand Challenges.

“You never want your culture to be defined by the benefits… The reason you come to GCC is because you want to help others, you have shared values in terms of your purpose. We are looking to support innovators and entrepreneurs around the world who are serving their communities. That is why you come to GCC – the gravy is that you have flexible Fridays. So I think that’s really important,” she says.

‘Massive advocate’ for culture

Smith joined Grand Challenges Canada in February 2023, having worked as managing director at Ariad Communications, where she worked for more than 14 years.

During that time, the company went from roughly 30 to 140 people, she says.

“I gained a ton of experience operationally, culturally, overseeing a number of different departments and teams, and also just to the running of the business. And then I went to a startup after that, and effectively took those lessons and did the same thing… and so HR was always very much a part of that.”

Today, Smith’s title at Grand Challenges reflects her being a “massive advocate” for culture, she says.

“I think it is the secret sauce to make an organization work. And people are the most important resource in in an organization. And so it was just really important to me, in this next phase of my career, that I focused on something that I was really passionate about, and that is culture. And I saw this role at GCC, met a number of people there, and it just felt really comfortable and right. So here I am.”

Latest stories