Workers for Microsoft in Japan had a pretty sweet deal in August: For the whole month, they worked a four-day week while receiving full-time wages. As a result, the employees were not only happier but also more productive, the company says.
The scheme was called Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019 and gave all 2,300 employees every Friday off. It’s a bold move in a country infamous for its incredibly long working hours — nearly 25% of Japanese companies require workers to put in 80 extra (often unpaid) hours per month, according to a 2016 study.
Microsoft says on its website that it wants to create an environment where employees can choose a “diverse and flexible way of working.” And it seems to have paid off. Labor productivity in August 2019 increased by 40% compared with August 2018, according to results the company printed online. The company also cut meeting times from an hour down to 30 minutes for about half of all meetings.
There were environmental benefits, too, with Microsoft reporting it used 23% less electricity and printed nearly 60% fewer pages during the month of the experiment compared with the same period last year. The vast majority of employees (92%) reported being happy with the shorter week.
Microsoft Japan has scheduled another trial for improving work-life balance for the winter but suggests the second trial won’t be offering a four-day week, but rather other ways to work more flexibly. It’s unclear whether the company intends to test the four-day week in other countries or roll out the scheme permanently.
“While progress will move a bit slower, you have more time for reflection, make better long-term decisions, and have happy, more productive employees.”
The concept of a four-day week is growing in popularity, even if few businesses are adopting the practice at this point. Advocates say it can address a number of problems, from burned-out employees and working parents who don’t have enough time to spend with their kids to environmentally conscious employees who want to reduce the impact of their commutes. And, of course, it appeals to the many workers who feel short-changed by the promise that tech would help us work smarter when, instead, it seems to have permanently chained us to our desks, sometimes at the expense of our mental health.
U.S. workers have some of the longest hours in the world, with 49% working more than 40 hours a week, according to a study from the Workforce Institute, and 40% saying their ideal workweek would be four days long.
A handful of companies in the U.S. have been experimenting with the concept. Monograph, a software company based in San Francisco, has implemented a four-day week on the equivalent of a full-time salary that lets employees choose their day off. Monograph’s founders say they were motivated by the desire to give employees time to recharge as well as the space to work on side projects.
In New Zealand, a trust management company called Perpetual Guardian opted for a 32-hour week while still paying its employees full-time wages. The effects of the policy were analyzed by Auckland’s University of Technology, which found a boost in work-life balance, lower stress levels and a belief among employees that the company actually cared about their well-being.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., the Labour Party has pledged to reduce the working week to 32 hours within a decade if elected.
But a four-day week might not suit everyone. “You have to commit to having a more balanced lifestyle and enjoying the process along the way,” Moe Amaya, Monograph’s co-founder, told HuffPost in January. “While progress will move a bit slower, you have more time for reflection, make better long-term decisions, and have happy, more productive employees.”
Some people remain reluctant to break out from traditional working weeks, with 27% of American workers the Workforce Institute surveyed saying they would still want to work a five-day week even if they had the option of a four-day week at the same pay.
The chance to have more agency over our working hours – whether or not that means a four-day week – may be what many employees crave most. “Younger people actually choose work flexibility over health care coverage, even though that expense in America is pretty high,” workplace analyst and author Dan Schawbel told NPR.
“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all model,” Joyce Maroney, executive director of WorkForce Institute, told HuffPost in January. “The responsibility of employers is to get clarity; what are achievable goals for our firm, how can we help people balance their physical wellness and needs out of work with productivity goals?”
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