Workers at Microsoft Japan enjoyed an enviable perk this summer: working four days a week, enjoying a three-day weekend — and getting their normal, five-day paycheck. The result, the company says, was a productivity boost of 40%.
Microsoft Japan says it became more efficient in several areas, including lower electricity costs, which fell by 23%. And as its workers took five Fridays off in August, they printed nearly 60 percent fewer pages.
All of the employees who took Fridays off were given special paid leave, the company says. Encouraged by the results, it plans to hold a similar trial in the winter.
Because of the shorter workweek, the company also put its meetings on a diet. The standard duration for a meeting was slashed from 60 minutes to 30 — an approach that was adopted for nearly half of all meetings. In a related cut, standard attendance at those sessions was capped at five employees.
In a blog post announcing the plan in July, Microsoft Japan said there was often no reason for meetings to run an hour, or to tie up multiple people from the same team.
Citing the need for a shift in time management, the Microsoft division also urged people to use collaborative chat channels rather than "wasteful" emails and meetings.
The news prompted excitement among many workers in Japan. A sampling of comments from the Asian news site Sora News 24 ranges from "Here's to hoping my boss reads about this" to "So I guess me feeling like I'm ready to be done for the week by Wednesday is pretty natural."
Four-day workweeks made headlines around the world in the spring of 2018, when Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trust management company, announced a 20% gain in employee productivity and a 45% increase in employee work-life balance after a trial of paying people their regular salary for working four days. Last October, the company made the policy permanent.
The Microsoft trial roughly doubled Perpetual Guardian's productivity gain. But for now at least, the company isn't saying whether it will test the four-day workweek policy in other locations or consider making it permanent.
Noting that Microsoft Japan's "Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer" was a pilot project, a Microsoft spokesperson tells NPR via email, "In the spirit of a growth mindset, we are always looking for new ways to innovate and leverage our own technology to improve the experience for our employees around the globe."
Many employees might be heartened by the prospect of a three-day weekend, but trials like the recent one in Japan are still only drops in a very large bucket of companies and workers worldwide. While employers could now be more likely to experiment by shortening their own workweeks, workplace analyst and author Dan Schawbel says that for the time being, employees are more likely to focus on a more common workplace perk: flexibility.
"Younger people actually choose work flexibility over health care coverage, even though that expense in America is pretty high," Schawbel says.
In the U.S., Schawbel sees schedule flexibility and a four-day week as two ways for employers to ease what he calls an ongoing burnout crisis.
At the heart of the discussion of workplace burnout and schedule flexibility is technology. The same electronic tools that have made working from home easier than ever have also made it harder for employees to fully unplug from their jobs when they aren't in the office.
It's an area that's already being explored in Europe, home of some of the world's strongest work-life-balance laws. France has granted employees the right to disconnect from their jobs, limiting email and other communications after hours, for instance.
But there are signs that the shorter workweek may increasingly become a political issue, similar to parental leave and other benefits. In the U.K., the Labour Party recently made the four-day workweek — at no change in pay — one of its central policies.
Backers of such moves point to a general trend toward shorter workweeks. When Labour embraced the idea, shadow chancellor John McDonnell was quoted by Labour List as saying, "the average full-time working week fell from nearly 65 hours in the 1860s to 43 hours in the 1970s."
Since the 1970s, the workweek has stopped shrinking despite sharp gains in worker productivity, McDonnell said. And as U.S. economists have noted, compensation has lagged behind productivity in that same period.
In 2017, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that from 1987 to 2015, productivity rose by as much as 5% annually in industry sectors from information to manufacturing and retail — but compensation never grew by more than 2% in each year of that same period.
Faced with decades of stagnant wage growth, it seems that many workers are now seeking more flexibility — and dreaming of a shorter workweek.
But the current enthusiasm for a four-day workweek should not be taken as proof that today's employees simply want to avoid work altogether. To illustrate that point, Schawbel refers to what he calls "the money question" from an often-cited 2018 survey he conducted with Kronos.
The question was straightforward, as Schawbel recalls: "If your pay is constant, how many days a week do you want to work?"
One of the potential replies to that question was simply, "None." But only 4% of the workers chose that answer. Only slightly more people chose one day, or two.
The biggest portion — 34% — said they want a four-day workweek. The current standard five-day week got 28% support. And 20% said they would prefer a three-day workweek.
"It's important," Schawbel says, "because it shows people want to work."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Microsoft tried a radical experiment - turning off computers and telling staffers to take Fridays off. This was a division of Microsoft in Japan. And this past August, it rolled out an experiment; abandoned the usual five-day workweek. Work four days instead of five. Well, guess what? The company says the result was a big spike in productivity. Joining me to talk about it is NPR's Bill Chappell.
BILL CHAPPELL, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: How did this work exactly?
CHAPPELL: Well, Microsoft's division in Japan gave about 2,300 employees every Friday off last August. The company says its productivity went up 40%.
KELLY: Forty percent for working one fewer day - OK, go on.
CHAPPELL: And electricity costs fell by 23%. So they saw gains in a lot of different ways - efficiency and productivity.
KELLY: And they tried some other things. What else were they doing to make this work?
CHAPPELL: They kind of went on a time diet. They said all the meetings have to be shorter. They need to be 30 minutes not an hour. No meetings should have more than five employees. And they actually said people should get in touch with each other directly and not use what they called wasteful emails and meetings.
KELLY: All right, I'm loving this so far. I'm abandoning journalistic neutrality (laughter).
CHAPPELL: (Laughter) Yes, right.
KELLY: I'm in. Are they going to roll this out on a wider basis?
CHAPPELL: Well, when I asked Microsoft about that, a spokesperson got back and said, you know, this is a pilot project, not to get too excited and for Microsoft employees not to get too excited. They said they are interested in some of these changes, but it's still at the pilot phase.
KELLY: What is the takeaway for other workplaces?
CHAPPELL: You know, I talked to workplace analyst Dan Schawbel. And he says for the time being in the U.S., employees are more likely to focus on a perk that we all might know more about. It's flexibility in their schedules.
DAN SCHAWBEL: Younger people actually choose work flexibility over health care coverage, even though that expense in America is pretty high.
KELLY: So, Bill, what is the downside to this? Why shouldn't every company be trying this?
CHAPPELL: Well, I mean, you could say they - maybe they should try it, but there are huge cultural barriers to this. I mean, in Japan and in the U.S., where people are known for their really intense workplace culture of putting in a lot of hours, the idea of idling people for an extra day just might not be a good look. When Dan Schawbel spoke to some HR department heads recently at a conference, he said his only real pushback that he heard was people saying, you know, what if people don't take the same day off?
KELLY: About predictability and being able to reach your co-workers.
KELLY: Are there other places, though, experimenting with ideas along these lines?
CHAPPELL: Well, I mean, this made big news last year when a company in New Zealand called Perpetual Guardian saw their productivity go up 20% when they tried a trial like this. And in the U.K., the Labor Party just recently made the 40 workweek part of its official platform. So I mean, backers are saying the workweek had been shrinking since the 1860s. The process, they note, stopped in the 1970s. And workers are trying to shake things up now, it seems like.
KELLY: All right, thank you so much, Bill.
KELLY: NPR's Bill Chappell with news of a four-day workweek that boosted productivity. Watch this space. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.