International Microsoft Japan's four-day work week experiment led to happier employees and a...

Microsoft Japan’s four-day work week experiment led to happier employees and a 40% increase in productivity

While the idea of a four-day work week seemed more geared toward start-ups or smaller companies, Microsoft has proven that it can work for the big guys, too.

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Maintaining a decent work-life balance is vital in today’s competitive and fast-paced world. Countries like Japan and Singapore are especially known for their over-achieving yet overworked ways. Microsoft Japan recently tried something that a growing number of smaller companies have been successfully implementing—adopting a four-day work week. The month-long experiment yielded great results—employees were happier and productivity levels soared by 40%.

While the idea of a four-day work week seemed more geared toward start-ups or smaller companies, Microsoft has proven that it can work for the big guys, too.

“Work Life Choice Challenge”

For the month of August, the company introduced a program in their Japan offices called the “Work Life Choice Challenge,” which declared that all Fridays of the month were no longer work days. The offices remained shut, and employees received an extra day off per week, with no deductions in pay.

Calling it “work style innovation” or  “work style reform”, the program aimed to create an environment where each employee can choose a variety of flexible work styles according to the unique circumstances of their work and life.

Microsoft challenged their employees to “work in a short time, take a rest, and learn well” to further improve productivity and creativity.

“I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20 percent less working time,” said Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano in a statement on their website.

Positive results

After a month of testing the four-day work week, Microsoft Japan studied the results, which they published in an official statement on October 31. Even though time spent at work was dramatically decreased, productivity levels (in this case measured by sales per employee) shot up by nearly 40 percent as compared to the same time period last year.
Microsoft Japan also considered the following savings that came as an additional result of the four-day work week—electricity use went down by 23 percent, employees reportedly took 25 percent less time off, and they printed 59 percent fewer pages of paper during the experimentation period.
On the morale front, almost all employees—92 percent of them—said they preferred the shorter work week.
With a focus on producing good work in less working time, Microsoft managers challenged their employees to decrease the time they spend in meetings and replying to emails.
Employees were encouraged to communicate more efficiently with each other using Microsoft’s online messaging app, thus eliminating the need for some meetings. Whenever actual meetings were necessary, managers suggested that they last for no more than a half hour.
With 2,280 employees involved in the shorter-week trial period, Microsoft Japan experienced far-reaching effects. More than 90 percent of all employees later shared that they were positively affected by the initiative.

Japan’s culture of overwork

The Japanese, long known for being severely overworked, would certainly benefit from adopting a shorter work week. The culture of overwork and the lack of work-life balance have been captured in grim news stories, videos and photography shared the world over.
This has not only resulted in terrible physical and mental health but even in death. Because the problem is quite widespread, it even has its own term: karoshi, which means death by overwork from stress-induced illnesses or severe depression.
In 2015, an employee at Japanese advertising giant Dentsu committed suicide on Christmas Day. According to Tokyo officials, the employee had racked up excessive amounts of overtime and was driven to desperation.
In 2017, a reporter at a Japanese broadcaster died after keeping unreasonably long working hours. Her employer reported that she had done an outrageous 159 hours of overtime the month before her death.
In August 2019, tech company Kisi released the results for a study they conducted called Cities for the Best Work-Life Balance 2019. It found that the most overworked cities in world were Tokyo, Singapore, Washington, Kuala Lumpur and Houston.

A call for more flexibility with work hours

To prevent further deaths and to affect change in the overwork culture, some Japanese companies have begun offering their employees more flexibility with their work hours, and the government has introduced an initiative called “Premium Friday,” which encourages workers to leave work early on every last Friday of the month.
Microsoft is planning to conduct another similar experiment in Japan before the year ends. Part of the plan is to get employees to come up with new measures to improve efficiency and work-life balance and to invite other companies to join the campaign.

“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,” a Microsoft spokesman told The Guardian.

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Singapore, in second place after Tokyo when it comes to being the most overworked, would also do well to adopt similar changes. While some companies have already been experimenting with giving their employees more flexibility with work hours, the culture of overwork still also prevails. -/TISG

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