The Four Day Work Week Experiment
Rick Beaton • Nov 15, 2019 • 5 min read
Microsoft raised eyebrows recently with their announcement reporting the results from an experiment in their Japan operations. They went to a four-day work week for the entire month of August and the results were surprising to many.
The Guardian reported, “The shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%....employees took 25% less time off during the trial and electricity use was down 23% in the office with the additional day off per week. Employees printed 59% fewer pages of paper during the trial. The vast majority of employees – 92% – said they liked the shorter week….the company had also planned to subsidize family vacations for employees up to ¥100,000 or $920. And lest we lose sight of effectiveness and productivity, Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano is quoted as saying to employees, “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot.” Hirano’s purpose? “I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time.”
By all accounts, it seems a resounding success, which isn’t a surprise. Other firms have experimented with a four-day work week with positive, but less dramatic results Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand is one example. We have known for several years from neuroscience research that a 35-45 hrs/week is the sweet spot for knowledge work. Productivity and creativity fall significantly after 45 hours. The knowledge workers in the MSFT experiment appear to thrive and achieve their business outcomes. There is a direct relationship between the change in their context of work, employee health and business outcomes.
Real issues lie behind these experiments. It isn’t a secret that employees are generally not having a great time at work. That much is obvious. This is especially true in Japan, as well as the USA. As a result, while people may be occupying seats in the office five to six days a week, it doesn’t mean they are doing their best work in a productive manner or living great lives away from work.
One question emerges, why do we work the way we do? We have lost sight of the fact that there was a time when people didn’t go to work in a factory or office. The whole notion of work and the bureaucracy that supports it has evolved over time. We live within the constraints we have created for ourselves.
Breaking and Making new Workforce Habits
One story of the creation of the work week is tied to the founder of Wedgwood pottery, Josiah Wedgwood. It is an illuminating example from the mid-1700’s, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Faced with growing demand for pottery, Wedgwood was one of the early pioneers in building factories and bureaucracy. His one big hurdle was the lifestyle and work habits of his generation. People tended to work when they wanted during three days of the week and eat, drink and make merry the remaining four. To make his factories efficient and reach his quotas, he needed a consistent workforce. Wedgwood was able to build a factory and employee discipline that ran 10 hours per day, six days a week, and as a result he dominated his market.
This period marked the beginning of factory work, where people needed to be present in a particular time and place to produce a widget. After almost three centuries of reinforcement, it has shaped our imagination about work and become self-evident truth. Work is Monday to Friday, 9:00 – 5:00, in a specific geographic location. The way to get ahead is to work harder, cut costs, put in more hours, produce more efficiently. Management is through line of sight supervision and external pressure and hours worked reported on timecards. What is lost is that Wedgwood’s solution was for a particular point in time, in a particular cultural, social, religious context.
Reimagining Work and the Workplace
The world and every dimension relating to work are undergoing significant change. We are in fact reimagining work. Like Wedgwood’s day, the broader cultural context and work are shifting. Microsoft’s Japan experiment, along with many others who have done similar experiments in other nations, are evidence that we can change the way we work and still accomplish the results we want.
We can work smarter, build fair, unbiased, sustainable workplaces and accomplish ambitious business outcomes in a way that is sustainable for people.
Here are five things to keep in mind as we reimagine work and workplace.
1. Begin with a deep, research-based understanding of people and their needs. Experience working with people isn’t enough, nor is simply repackaging what we have done for the last hundred years. We know a lot more about people today. We have the research. It is a blend of social-psychology, neurobiology, philosophy, anthropology, and other disciplines that investigate people.
2. Design and build an ecosystem that is sustainable for people based upon a balanced use of the research and practices. For example, if we are building an ecosystem for the knowledge economy, we recognize that employees are working primarily with their minds, drawing on their education and life/work experience. We can shape workflow, hours worked, physical environment, culture, leadership/management practices that provide an optimal environment for people.
3. Rethink how we hire, onboard, develop, promote and allocate people across the organization. We can now get the right people in the right seat on the bus with a high success rate.
4. Consistently upskill workers with the skills essential for this new economy.
5. Rethink how we lead and manage in this new environment.