Over the last few hundred years, the world has seen an evolution in the number of hours we work. During the 1870s, it was common for people to work 70 hours a week. In the 1940s, that average dropped to 40 hours. Since then, there hasn’t been much change, yet people around the world continue to suffer from overworking and burnout.
One area of the world where this is becoming a major problem in is Japan. Japan is known for its long working hours and lack of work-life balance, so much so that some young Japanese workers have literally worked themselves to death.
As a project to address these kinds of systemic issues and encourage better work-life balance, Microsoft set out to see what would happen if they reduced the workweek of their Japan office from five days to four. As part of the Microsoft “Worklife Choice” philosophy, their management strategy aims to create “an environment where each employee can choose a diverse and flexible way of working according to the circumstances of their work and life.”
What Microsoft Did
Microsoft closed its office every Friday from August 2nd-August 30th and during this time, employees took a special paid leave.
In order to support the shift, minimize time waste, and increase productivity during times of collaboration, Microsoft created a new reform around how meetings would operate within the company. The standard time for meeting duration was cut from 60 minutes to 30 minutes, with a meeting participant cap of five people. If more attendants needed to be present, rules were set around who would be allowed to speak during the meeting. They encouraged remote communications whenever possible, rather than face to face in-person meetings.
To be truly efficient, employees were told that whenever possible to use Microsoft Teams and utilize instant messages to communicate and collaborate, rather than creating a trail of emails and meetings.
Impact vs. Results
Compared to KPIs from 2018, the results showed that people’s productivity improved by 39.9%. Beyond employee productivity, the company showed positive results around sustainability, including a reduction of 58.7% in paper printing, and 23.1% in electricity consumption.
This project was part of their “Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019” and showed that it is possible to reimagine the way we think about work and productivity.
Future iterations won’t have a special paid leave, however, employees will be encouraged to rest, work in shorter times, and enjoy the challenge of change.
Employee Response & Reaction
The implications of this study can be seen positively for Japanese work culture, as a 2017 survey indicates that workers are putting in over 80 hours a week a month, with some of that time unpaid! This Microsoft experiment is evidence in favor of the value that balance can have on mental health, happiness, and overall productivity.
From an employer perspective, it can be seen as a win, as happier employees are less at risk for burnout, take less sick days, and are less likely to seek employment elsewhere. Additionally, this study shows that creating a shorter workweek can help you save money on office overhead as well as reduce time-wasting practices.
This kind of push towards work-like balance is not something that all tech giants are embracing. Jack Ma of Alibaba, for example, still advocates for the 12-hour workday, 6 day work week.
Other 4-Day Workweek Experiments
When a similar trial was done in New Zealand with the company Perpetual Guardian, the results showed a 24% improvement in work-life balance, which resulted in a more energized employee. While their actual performance didn’t change, employees were more creative, had better attendance, and didn’t rush to leave work at the end of the day. Since then, it has adopted the 4 day work week permanently.
Similar studies were found in Sweden when a 30-hour workweek for employees of a nursing home was mandated as part of an experiment. To learn more about the research, you can visit the 4 Day Week site!
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