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Microsoft tried a 4-day work week — and productivity soared

For those of you dreaming of a shorter work week, there's new evidence that suggests only four days at the office would benefit employers and employees alike.

Just ask Microsoft, which tested a shorter work week in Japan and gave workers in Tokyo every Friday off this past August. The company gave special paid leave to workers to account for their fifth day, but also subsidized expenses employees incurred for volunteering, taking classes or taking family trips. The result: Productivity rose 40%, according to the software maker.

Employees packed more efficiency into their 32-hour weeks by conducting more remote conference calls, while also printing far less material at the office — a cost savings. Overall, data from the so-called Work Life Choice Challenge showed "employees are seeking diversified work styles," Microsoft officials said in a statement.

Business practices that work in one country may not necessarily be effective somewhere else, with Japanese workers in particular are noted for their nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. Yet some companies — in the U.S. and abroad — are giving four-day weeks a try.

A June 2019 report from the Society for Human Resource Management said 15% of more than 2,700 American companies and organizations surveyed now offer a four-day work week option to employees, up from 12% in 2017.

"While four-day workweeks are still relatively uncommon, organizations that have implemented them report no decreases to productivity or revenue as a result," the report states.

In New Zealand, a manager of wills and estates called Perpetual Guardian let its 230 employees take Friday off for six weeks last year. Andrew Barnes, the founder of Perpetual Guardian, said the experiment made employees 20% more productive, although revenue and profits remain unchanged. An independent analysis from Auckland University of Technology found that Perpetual Guardian employees were more engaged with tasks during their work days.

When summer takes Fridays off 05:39

"Business leaders are conditioned to believe working long hours equates to working hard," Barnes said. "It's very difficult to get a whole generation of business leaders to believe that, actually, the way we've been doing it pretty much our entire careers is wrong."

Simply Business, a call center in the United Kingdom, switched its 500 employees to a four-day work week on a trial basis in September. The move will require employees to be 20% more productive during their 32 hour workweek, company officials told The Guardian.

The work culture in Japan emphasizes teamwork from employees across departments and manager approval in almost every decision, said Daisuke Ugaeri, a visiting fellow at Columbia Business School's Center on Japanese Economy and Business. The Japanese government is starting to change work hours, but a decade ago, workers had grueling hours, Ugaeri said.

"We want to do work perfectly," Ugaeri said. "Sometimes it's too much work, so it takes more time to give adequate quality and, sometimes, we need a lot of time to make decisions because we have to get consensus from many departments and leaders."

Microsoft officials in Japan said their data revealed some barriers to implementing a four-day work week more broadly, including some pushback from managers and uneven results depending on the department.

But Barnes, who is writing a book about four-day work weeks, is convinced the strategy can work at any company no matter the size, industry or location. The biggest obstacle for U.S. companies adopting four-day work weeks on a large scale is mostly psychological, he said.

"At the heart of this is productivity and, if we can get enhanced productivity from something that delivers work-life balance, it's a win-win-win," he said, citing employers, workers and their families as winners. "All the evidence suggests that productivity will either hold steady or go up."

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