Microsoft Japan trials 4-day work week, workers' productivity skyrockets

Microsoft Japan gave all of its employees Fridays off in August.
Microsoft Japan gave all of its employees Fridays off in August. Photo credit: Reuters

Think of office work in Japan and the concept of a four-day week probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. 

For workers at Microsoft Japan, however, a three-day weekend was the norm during August, when the company tested shorter weeks.

And not only did the trial find workers were happier - that much was to be expected - it also found employees were significantly more productive.

As part of the programme, called Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, Microsoft gave all of its 2,300 employees five Fridays off during August, with no drop in salary, reports The Guardian.

The programme is a notable change for Japan's work culture, which has a dubious record when it comes to work-life balance. In recent years the country has been plagued with cases of "karoshi", or death from overwork. The notion made international headlines in 2015 when an employee of the advertising firm Dentsu committed suicide. It was later revealed the 24-year-old had worked more than 100 hours' overtime in the months before dying, and officials ruled her death had been caused by the stress of overwork.

In 2017, a worker at the country's public broadcaster, NHK, died of heart failure after logging 159 hours of overtime and taking only two days off in the month leading up to her death. Officials ruled her death was also due to karoshi.

Earlier this year the government moved to limit the amount of overtime employees could work to 45 hours a month and 360 hours a year. However the cap can be extended during busy periods, for up to six month of the year.

If Microsoft's trial is anything to go by, however, companies may actually benefit from having employees work shorter hours.

The test found employees' productivity was up 40 percent and they took 25 percent less time off work during the period, reports The Guardian. Electricity use in the office was also down 23 percent, with workers printing 59 percent fewer pages of paper.

Nearly all the employees - 92 percent - also said they liked the new hours.

Microsoft Japan president and chief executive Takuya Hirano said he hoped the short hours would lead to a new work-life balance: "Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot". 

"I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20 percent less working time," Hirano said in a statement, according to The Guardian

A similar experiment was tested by New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian in 2018, with the company permanently adopting the shorter week after an initial six-week trial proved to be successful.