A recent experiment with four-day workweeks at Microsoft Japan yielded an impressive 40% jump in productivity. In an effort to promote work/life balance, Microsoft held a Work Life Choice Challenge in August. The company gave its 2,300 employees every Friday off for one month and measured productivity over the same period in 2018. Microsoft measured productivity as number of sales per employee. Compared to August 2018, Microsoft’s productivity jumped 39.9% in August 2019.

In addition to giving employees every Friday off, the company also capped meeting times at 30 minutes and encouraged remote conferences. The firm also saw a reduction in costs of 23.1% in electricity and 58.7% fewer pages printed.

Consistent Results?

The results of Microsoft Japan’s experiment are impressive, but can the same results be duplicated across companies, cultures, and industries?

Some companies and firms have had great success implementing shorter workweeks or workdays. A New Zealand firm found four-day weeks so successful that it made the change permanent. In Germany, consulting firm Digital Enabler implemented five-hour workdays and saw a jump in productivity and employee satisfaction.

However, others have had less success with similar experiments. A widely reported experiment that allowed Swedish home care nurses to work six-hour days ended with mixed results. Though the nurses had fewer sick days and higher satisfaction, the cost of hiring additional nurses to cover the gaps that the shortened hours created caused controversy. Shorter workdays may simply not work in certain professions, such as emergency services, health care, and other vital services.

Productivity And The 8-Hour Workday

The tradition of an eight-hour workday has its roots in the Industrial Revolution. For decades, employees worked anywhere from 10 to 16 hours per day in factories in order to keep production going around the clock. However, with the formation of labor unions and the implementation of child labor laws, the eight-hour workday became the norm—and productivity rose.

Recent studies have suggested that most people are only “productive” for between three and six hours per day. According to one survey, employees spend the rest of their day on tasks such as:

  • Checking social media
  • Reading news websites
  • Discussing non-work activities with colleagues
  • Making calls to partners or friends
  • Breaks for smoking, eating, or making hot drinks
  • Looking for another job

These non-work-related tasks don’t include other productivity killers such as long meetings, travel time to work-related activities (especially when such activities can be handled via an e-mail, remote meeting, or phone call), or office interruptions.

Companies that offer reduced work hours have also looked at ways to eliminate some of these distractions in order to maximize focus for employees. Digital Enabler prohibited use of social media during the five-hour workday. Phones are locked away, and idle talk is discouraged between employees.

Other solutions to help encourage employee focus might include capping meeting times, as at Microsoft Japan, encouraging remote meetings wherever possible, and coaching employees on productivity methods, such as the Pomodoro Technique.

Flexibility Pays Off

Even companies skeptical of the productivity of shorter workweeks should consider the value of offering flexibility to employees, particularly millennials, in an increasingly tight labor market.

Many employees and job seekers view flexibility as preferable to increased pay. Shorter workweeks or workdays may also pay off in employee health as many studies link long hours to increased risk of heart problems.

Offering greater scheduling flexibility doesn’t have to look like a six-hour workday or a four-day workweek. Companies should ask employees what they want and work with their staff to find solutions that offer increased productivity and greater work/life balance. Depending on the industry, office culture, and employee needs, flexibility could look like anything from job sharing to fewer days per week to fewer hours per day to some combination of work-from-home and work-in-office.

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