Microsoft recently wrapped up a one-month trial in Japan in which the tech giant studied the relationship between work-life balance and employee productivity. Through the “Work-Life Choice Challenge,” Microsoft Japan closed its offices every Friday in August and saw productivity increase by 40 percent compared to the same period in 2018.
The company’s experiment is noteworthy for several reasons. The results indicate that larger organizations may be able to implement abbreviated workweeks successfully. At the same time, Microsoft may also have found a viable solution to Japan’s long-documented struggle with an overworked labor force.
The ‘Work-Life Choice Challenge’
Microsoft’s Work-Life Choice Challenge instituted several changes to the traditional workweek. Employees only worked four days each week and received paid leave for the fifth day. Workers were told to spend less time emailing and to keep in-person meetings under 30 minutes.
Using sales per employee as a measure of comparison, Microsoft found that productivity increased by nearly 40 percent year over year. More than 90 percent of the 2,280 employees reported being impacted by the trial. Additionally, Microsoft recognized savings on resources, such as printer paper, and utilities as a result of the shortened week.
Japan’s Culture of Overwork
The trial results offer optimism to a country and culture that has long witnessed the negative impacts of overworking. In Japan, there is a term for death by overwork—karoshi—which was coined in the 1970s to describe employees who took their own lives or suffered health problems as a result of extended work hours.
The Japanese government has taken steps to address karoshi. In 2016, the government launched the Premium Friday plan, which shortened the workday on the last Friday of each month. Thus far, the results have been mixed, and tremendous workforce pressure still exists, especially on the younger generation.
Companies, like Microsoft, are taking on the burden of responsibility to address overworking and trying to find out ways to change workplace expectations. Some are offering free breakfast in the office, and others are promoting the use of paid vacation for those who need time off. There is still a long way to go, although Microsoft Japan’s trial may pave a path for future success.
Work Schedule Innovation Around the World
Microsoft isn’t the only company experimenting with the traditional workweek. In New Zealand, the estate-planning firm, Perpetual Garden, implemented a similar program in which employees were instructed to work only 32 hours each week for two months. CEO Andrew Barnes found that morale improved while productivity remained constant.
The software development company, Buffer, has tested several variations of the alternative work schedule. In August, the company offered half-day Fridays or Mondays to lengthen the weekend. Similarly, results showed that employees were able to complete the same amount of work in the allotted time.
In the early 2000s, Google experimented with its “20% time” policy, which encouraged employees to spend one-fifth of their working hours on projects they believed would benefit the company. Although the 20 percent time may no longer exist in practice, Google’s efforts have helped inspire others to reconsider the workweek model for the sake of employee happiness and productivity.