Sidewalk turned into a calendar
PHOTO: Curtis MacNewton

There was a flurry of excitement a couple of weeks ago around an announcement from Microsoft, which seemed to suggest that cutting the work week to four days could be more productive. It was an interesting claim and one that was backed up by a trial in Japan, in which it gave workers in Tokyo every Friday off last August. The company gave special paid leave to workers to account for their fifth day, and also subsidized expenses employees incurred for volunteering, taking classes or taking family trips.

Microsoft’s Experiment

The results, according to a blog post (In Japanese, but translatable in Google Search), appeared to suggest that productivity rose 40%, during the week with workers packed more efficiency into their 32-hour weeks by conducting more remote conference calls, while also printing far less material at the office — a cost savings. Overall, data from the so-called Work Life Choice Challenge showed "employees are seeking diversified work styles," Microsoft officials said in a statement.

However, before planning long weekends with friends and family, it should be noted that Microsoft has not indicated that it will actually apply this to a wider study to see if it would work on the Microsoft enterprise, or indeed, if it ever has any intention of adopting it as a work practice.

Without digging too deep into the study and how it was run, there are several "special" circumstances that put in to question whether this would work outside of a Tokyo-based workplace. Jay Allen is the publisher of Unseen Japan, a website dedicated to Japanese work and life. He pointed out that the current experience of work in Japan made it an ideal testing ground for the four-day work week, and what this might mean for the future of work.

Related Article: The Changing Nature of the Workplace

Japanese Workplaces

It's interesting that Microsoft's experiment took place in Japan. Japan is in the middle of a "work" revolution" that aims to cut down on long hours. Japan has had several high-profile instances of karoshi (death by overwork), including the suicide of Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi, who logged up to 130 hours of overtime in a month.

On top of this, Japanese women find themselves doing some 25 hours of housework a week, compared to the average of 5 hours done by their husbands. This is, according to the OECD, one of the worst imbalances in the world. “So, Japan is currently fertile ground for just this type of reform: something's gotta give, or something's gonna break,” he told us.

However, this change is also bringing friction between generations. He cited a recent Japanese drama that focused on work/life balance, in which it called this out by showing how the old guard brought up during Japan's Bubble Era looked down on their 9-to-5 younger colleagues as slackers. The younger workers, meanwhile, couldn't understand why their older colleagues would give so much of their lives away to their employers. “Ultimately, I think companies will have to accommodate multiple work styles — and that will include options such as the four-day work week,” he added. Even in today's atmosphere that emphasizes work/life balance, some workers like to work extended hours. They're happiest when they're putting in 50 to 60 hours a week. The challenge for companies will be to recognize these work styles and structure compensation accordingly.

Related Article: 8 Ways to Support a Customer-Obsessed Culture

Moving to Part-Time

This also corresponds with a wider, international trend that sees developed economies moving away from full-time employees (who carry high burden in the form of health insurance and related benefits), and towards a stronger reliance on part-time workers. Allen adds that this move has been particularly marked in Japan, where the lifelong employment system has been slowly disintegrating. For example, more women are being hired in Japan than ever before — but the hiring is all part-time work. “I think you'll see this trend accelerate in most developed countries. Ultimately, more and more workers will find themselves forced to cobble together income, not from a single employer, but from multiple part-time gigs, contracts, and other revenue sources,” he said.

Working Efficiently

Mark Strassman is SVP and general manager of unified communications and collaboration at Boston-based LogMeIn. He believes that the experiment in Japan has wider implications for different kinds of working. “The initial success of Microsoft Japan’s experiment with four-day workweeks — a 40% productivity boost — perfectly demonstrates the incredible potential of flexible work,” he said. “With reduced workweeks, employees are not only motivated to deliver great results to support the concept, but they’re also forced to be more efficient with their time.”

He added that while a reduced work week may not be immediately feasible for most organizations, there are other workplace policies that can also drive improved productivity. Even simply offering other forms of flexible work such as remote work can provide employees with the same motivation to improve their performance.

Last year, a GoToMeeting study confirmed this. It demonstrated just how much employees appreciate remote work: 42% of office workers said their lives would be negatively impacted if they no longer had the option to work remotely, 60% said they would be more likely to take a job offering remote work and 41% said remote work is “very important” to the future of business.

And fortunately, the morale boost provided by flexible work options not only leads to productivity gains, but it also reduces burnout. “Clearly, organizations need to implement the necessary policies and collaboration technology to enable flexible working and capitalize on the productivity benefits as well as avoid losing key talent,” Strassman added.

Microsoft’s efforts to create efficiency and prevent overwork is admirable, but a four-day work week doesn’t work for every company, said Peter Purcell, founder of Houston-based Evan360. Many companies have clients or customers who rely on them five days a week. When a four-day work week is not possible, it’s time to explore other solutions.

He pointed out that while companies have employed all kinds of creative solutions to boost productivity, there’s one productivity drain that most organizations fail to address: their problem-solving structure. Your existing help desk or ticketing solution might be one of the biggest productivity drains on your company. “If your employees are spending hours waiting or searching for answers, distracted from work and wasting valuable time, I recommend re-evaluating your existing ticketing system,” he said.

“Just because a four-day work week doesn’t work for your company doesn’t mean you can't find other ways to encourage productivity and improve operations within your organization.”

Increased Productivity

Thanks largely to technology, we have boosted productivity by probably thousands of percentage points over the last century (and a lot of that, just in the past 20 years). Still, human beings find ways to fill the time. There is always more work.

There are plenty of stories out there about how AI and machine learning will reduce the need for humans to take on boring, routine tasks (and even some more technical niches, in tech development, operations, marketing or sales). There will be revolutionary changes at some point. “But in the short term, I think some of the greatest improvements will come from simply improving the device we all have in our pockets: the smartphone,” said Vern Weitzman, CTO and founder of  San Jose, Calif.-based Cira Apps.

Apps and solutions that build on its current capabilities leave us lots of quick wins when it comes to reducing work time.  For example, if all your company’s contacts are synced up from day one on the job and you’re on the sales team, you’re never going to get interrupted by robocalls or other distractions. “Simple solutions like this can add up — and ultimately, free up time — if an enterprise was looking to go down to a 4-day work week,” he added.

However, he is not optimistic about a four-day week any time soon. “Not to be a buzz kill, but I have to admit, I don’t see a 4-day work week happening for enterprise in my lifetime,” he said.