Microsoft Japan Tests a 4‑Day Work Week, Sees a 40% Rise in Productivity
“Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot,” said Takuya Hirano, Microsoft Japan’s president and CEO in a press release, after an experiment that tested out a four-day workweek — which not only resulted in an increase in employees’ happiness but also their levels of productivity.
In August 2019, Microsoft gave all of its 2,300 employees five Fridays off in a row without decreasing their pay as part of a project titled Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019. The company also proposed to subsidize family vacations for employees up to ¥100,000, or US$920 (approximately Rs. 65,000).
The results showed meetings held during the four-day week were more efficient, and employees’ productivity increased by as much as 40%. Employees also ended up taking 25% less time off during the trial and 92% of them said they liked the new work schedule. The shortened workweek also benefitted the organization’s bottom line: the electricity use of Microsoft offices went down by 23% and employees printed 59% fewer pages of paper.
“[With the results of this experiment] I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time,” Hirano added.
This isn’t the first time a company has trialed a shorter workweek for its employees. In 2018, New Zealand-based Perpetual Guardian, a company that manages trusts, wills, and estate planning, gave 240 members of its staff a four-day workweek for two months, without changing their pay. This experiment showed a decrease in the staff’s stress levels by 7% and an increase in overall life satisfaction by 5%. Before the experiment, only 54% of employees had said they were able to successfully manage their work-life balance. However, after the experiment, the numbers had increased to 78%, The Guardian reported.
Studies have also shown that besides shortening the workweek, reducing the eight-hour workday to six hours has also brought about the same results in productivity.
At a Melbourne-based innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, Steve Glaveski, CEO and founder, conducted a two-week, six-hour workday experiment. Glaveski wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “the shorter workday forced the team to prioritize effectively, limit interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate level for the first few hours of the day.” He added that the experiment also led to the team reporting an improvement in their mental health state, with them also getting more time to rest with family and with friends.
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Whether Microsoft Japan’s experiment is an effort to address the country’s culture of overwork — which led Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to introduce workstyle reforms recently — is not yet confirmed, but the organization plans to conduct a second experiment in the winter to encourage more flexible working.
But the four-day workweek has had challenges. Organizations that introduced a four-day workweek have also scrapped the format for various reasons. One London-based research firm, Wellcome Trust, called it off stating it was, “too operationally complex to implement.” Another, U.S.-based HR firm Treehouse, went back to a five-day workweek because “the first [four-day trial] failed to keep up with competition,” when the owners realized that a shorter workweek meant that the competitors had a leg up.
Shorter workweeks have another disadvantage. They hurt employment by increasing the cost of labor, with employers having to pay for five days when employees are clocking in fewer hours over four days, according to the Confederation of British Industry. In additon to that, a Harvard Business Review article states that per a survey of employees and business leaders in the U.K., even employees have reservations about a shortened week, with 45% of them worried about coming across as lazy for spending less time at work. “This suggests there is a paradox in how employees perceive the practice: They want it implemented but are afraid to engage with it as first movers,” stated HBR.
All said and done, is India in a position to adopt and implement a four-day workweek? Per a 2018 survey conducted by Kronos Incorporated, a human capital consultancy, India is the hardest working country in the world, with 69% of its full-time employees saying they would work five days a week even if they had the option to work fewer days for the same pay. James Thomas, country manager for Kronos, said that Indian employees – 62% of them – feel the pressure to work extended hours or pick up extra shifts to grow their career. “Yet, frequently, that pressure comes from within,” Thomas wrote for Financial Express. Therefore, “despite the widespread enthusiasm for a four-day week, it is not convincing enough for India that such a schedule is beneficial for employees or businesses. Today, when we are free to choose how we want to work, Indians are picking the traditional work hours over a four-day workweek. This mindset may change in the future, but for now, it is here to stay,” he added.
But in light of the results from Microsoft Japan’s experiment as well as other companies’, the idea of a four-day workweek can’t be fully dismissed, Ben Laker, professor of leadership at Henley Business School, and Thomas Roulet, a senior lecturer in organization theory at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, write for HBR. “The idea requires proper consideration, and the potential benefits suggest a trial-and-error approach is the best way forward. Such a path would help us understand under which conditions a shorter workweek might succeed and when the benefits can outweigh the costs. The countries and organizations that can crack the code of the four-day week first could build a competitive advantage, if they can implement it in a way that maximizes the well-being benefit on the longer term while minimizing the short-term rise in labor and operational costs.”