Work less but produce more? In Japan, Microsoft is trying to solve that puzzle

Microsoft's four-day working week trial in Japan has produced significant productivity growth among employees.

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In Japan, a country that infamously has its own term, 'karochi', to describe death by overwork, Microsoft has conducted a little experiment. For a month in the summer, it gave its 2,300 employees every Friday off, with no reduction in pay. The results, published last week, exceeded Microsoft's expectations.

The company saw a rise in productivity, measured by sales per employee, that came close to 40%. An overwhelming 92.1% of employees said they were in favor of a four-day week. The program was so successful that Microsoft is planning on repeating it next summer.

The initiative, called the Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019, was announced last April with the objective of improving productivity and creativity through applying the motto 'Work shorter times, take a rest, and learn well'.

SEE: How to optimize the smart office (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Takuya Hirano, CEO of Microsoft Japan, said: "It is necessary to have an environment that allows you to feel your purpose in life and make a greater impact at work. I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time."

In addition to a prolonged weekend, the program also included measures to make sure that employees made the best use of their extra time off. Up to ¥100,000 ($914) was spent per employee on subsidizing volunteer activities or family trips, for instance.

A shorter working week, combined with improved self-development and family wellness, was expected to increase overall employee productivity, and was largely successful.

Microsoft said the trial succeeded because workers, with only four days to do a weeks' work, kept meetings shorter, switched to remote conferencing, or cut out meetings altogether when they were deemed unnecessary.   

At the same time, closing the office for an extra day more than halved the amount of pages printed and reduced electricity usage by 23.1% – all of which cut costs.

The program came as a breath of fresh air in a country plagued by an unhealthy and at times deadly work ethic. In 2013, journalist Miwa Sado died of heart failure at 31 years of age, shortly after she logged 159 hours of overtime in a month at the news network NHK.  

More recently, a government report found that 23% of the 1,743 companies surveyed confessed that their employees worked over 80 hours of overtime a month

Tackling this issue was a priority of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who made it one of the three pillars of the labor reform he was pushing. This year, in fact, a law came into force to set a 45-hour-per-month cap on overtime work

Some Japanese firms are also trying to boost productivity by improving work-life balance for their workers. Last year, advertising agency Dentsu, for example, introduced a trial for a monthly day off. This came three years after one employee committed suicide after logging over 100 hours of overtime in the month leading to her death

However, Microsoft is not pioneering the four-day working week and the idea has been floated several times in companies across the world.

The most convincing initiative was carried out by Perpetual Guardian, a 240-employee financial company based in New Zealand. The two-month trial in 2018 became a permanent change a few months later, after it was found that cutting work hours reduced staff stress levels by 7%.

A white paper published by researchers from the University of Auckland, who monitored the Perpetual Guardian's initiative, said a shorter week in the office had led to a "head down" and "just do it" approach to work from employees

It also increased collaboration and teamwork: "Many employees ... feel a deep sense of goodwill and reciprocity towards the organization, which manifests in an openness to 'go the extra mile' and think about 'what I can do to give back'," said the report.

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That is not to say that the method is universally effective. Research carried out by Henley Business School in the UK showed that although the four-day week leads to better employee satisfaction and increased earnings, it can prove challenging to implement in bigger firms

Almost three-quarters of UK business leaders surveyed said they were concerned with the regulations and bureaucracy associated with the change. 

The report pointed to the example of the Wellcome Trust, the second-biggest research donor in the world, which earlier this year scrapped its plans to switch to a four-day working week, saying it would be "too operationally complex to implement".

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft, and the several thousand employees it manages in Japan, will be able to overcome these challenges to carry out the next version of its Work-Life Choice Challenge – and perhaps one day make the project a permanent work model.