The decision to give the workforce five consecutive Fridays off on full pay in August saw sales rise by nearly 40%, electricity consumption drop by 23.1% and employees printing 59% fewer pages of paper.

By Ian Horswill

Posted on November 6, 2019

Microsoft Japan decided to see what happened if it put its 2,300 workers on a four-day work week.

To try and achieve the same productivity, Microsoft Japan encouraged the workforce to shorten meetings to a maximum of 30 minutes and to favour online chats over face-to-face conversations.

The decision to give the workforce five consecutive Fridays off on full pay in August saw sales rise by nearly 40%, electricity consumption drop by 23.1% and employees printing 59% fewer pages of paper.

Ninety-two per cent of employees who took part in the trial said they were pleased with the results and Microsoft Japan, with their headquarters in the Shinagawa district of Tokyo, wants the workforce to let them know how they can keep achieving such results on a four-day week in a bid for a better work-life balance.

As part of the program, Microsoft Japan also planned to subsidise family vacations for employees up to ¥100,000 or A$920.

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“Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot,” Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano said in a statement to the website of Microsoft Japan. “I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time.”

Microsoft Japan, for its part, said it will conduct another experiment later this year. It plans to ask employees to come up with new measures to improve work-life balance and efficiency, and will also ask other companies to join the initiative.

Microsoft Japan four day week

Japan has a culture of working long hours. The problem is so severe, the country has even coined a term for it: ‘Karoshi’ means death by overwork from stress-induced illnesses or severe depression.

The issue attracted international attention in 2015 when an employee at Japanese advertising giant Dentsu died by suicide on Christmas Day. Tokyo officials later said that the staffer had worked excessive amounts of overtime. Two years later, a reporter at a Japanese broadcaster died after working long hours. Her employer said she had worked 159 hours of overtime the month before her death.

The Japanese government has launched a scheme called “Premium Friday” which encourages workers to leave early every last Friday of the month.

The idea of a four day week with no loss of pay is appealing to most people and it has been spoken about many times before without actually happening. In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes imagined an “age of leisure and of abundance” in an essay which predicted that technological advances would allow employees of the future to work as little as three hours per day. In 1956, then US Vice President Richard Nixon promised a four-day work week in the “not too distant future” for every American.

In the UK, The Labour Party earlier this year publicly committed to introducing a four-day work week if it enters government, with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell promising “a shorter working week with no loss of pay”.

The experiment by Microsoft Japan is particularly noteworthy due to the size of the business and the results. Other companies with four day weeks showed similar patterns.

Perpetual Guardian, a trust management company in New Zealand, switched to a four-day work week last year and found that its employees were happier and less stressed as a result.

However, it is not a policy all companies can instigate.

The UK’s Wellcome Trust abandoned a four-day week after finding it too difficult to implement. Moving the trust’s 800 head office employees to four day weeks affected departments including IT and HR. The issue was that it created an unfair work environment where employees who could work flexibly did so at the expense of other teams.

Another company which reversed a four-day work week policy is an American online training firm Treehouse. The firm operated a four-day work week for a decade, but chief executive Ryan Carson scrapped the policy in 2016 as more competitors entered the market.

Karen Jansen, a professor in leadership at Henley Business School in the UK, and an author of a white paper released earlier this year found that 70% of employees believe that working a four-day work week would improve their mental wellbeing. They also believed that four-day work weeks were a “win-win” scenario for businesses and employees alike.

She cautioned treating Microsoft’s experiment in Japan as unequivocal proof that the policy can be effective though.

“The work environment context matters here. They are overworked and that’s the norm in their culture,” Prof Jansen told The Telegraph.

“They’ve gone from 100mph to 60mph, let’s say. Whether or not every company would find those kinds of numbers, I think we’d have to be cautious about that.”