Microsoft Proved a Four-Day Workweek Improved Productivity in Japan. Can Its Results Translate to the U.S.?

November 24, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC
After experimenting with a four day on, three day off schedule over the summer, Microsoft Japan reported a 40% increase in worker productivity. Can it work in the U.S.?
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The quandary goes back decades: how to help employees find a better work-life balance, while also making sure that everything that needs doing at your company gets done. Recent news out of Microsoft Japan had some people wondering if the road to sanity for both employers and workers has finally been discovered: the four-day workweek.

No, not a four-day workweek with split shifts. But a for-everyone four days on, three days off. A “pure” four-day workweek instead of an “overlap” setup, as Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours calls it.

The Microsoft Japan test ran this summer, with employees working four days, having three off, and still collecting their full paycheck. The biggest benefit to the company? Productivity went up 40%.

“Four-day workweeks are appealing because so many professional and managerial workers feel they are working intensely and too long, but it is often unclear how to take control of their time,” says Erin L. Kelly, MIT Sloan Distinguished Professor of Work and Organization Studies and co-author of Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It, which will be published in March.

“Many knowledge workers—who are privileged in terms of wages, benefits and interesting work—feel they just have too much to do,” Kelly says. “They find it hard to find the time for reflection and recovery that will allow them to do their best work as well as have more sustainable lives, protecting their health and caring for their families and communities.” 

Though the reason the four-day office gives employees a boost may seem simple—more time off is delightful, right?—there’s much more to it. “The four-day work week then becomes a prompt that encourages employees and managers to look at how they are working, to try to find smarter ways to get the job done, while also reclaiming some time for their own goals.”

But there are several road blocks to consider before U.S. companies should consider making the change. Switching to a four-day schedule isn’t easy and a lot of thought has to go into it before human resources can send out a great news about your hours email.

Phillis Moen, Founding Director, University of Minnesota Advanced Careers Initiative, and the co-author of Overload says that U.S. professionals and managers already work more than five days and 40 hours per week, and “always-on accessibility made possible by new communication technologies” hasn’t helped. “The strains contemporary American workers experience cannot be relieved by reducing days in the office if workloads and accessibility are not also modulated,” she says.

Kelly adds that studies have shown that some employees don’t appreciate a shift to a four-day work week. The schedule often requires longer hours on the in-office days, and that may not fit in with their current needs. “Many studies, including my own research, find that a sense of control over your work schedule is valuable and predicts better work-life balance, less stress, and less burnout,” she says.

Instead, Kelly adds, consider offering a “variety of schedules and remote work options, coupled with serious conversations about how much work people are being asked to do and brainstorming and support to cut meetings or tasks that are not really critical to the central work.” In Overload, she and Moen report on an experiment at a Fortune 500 company that did just that and “saw benefits to employees, their families, and the firm.”

Another strategy that can help cut down the need for in-office time is to knock out long meetings. (Okay, that’s something every workplace would benefit from.) Pozen says there are three key steps to reducing meeting times.

  1. Preparation. You must have an agenda and send meeting materials out in advance.
  2. Put the kibosh on letting anybody even think about running a PowerPoint presentation. And no droning on. Meetings should be about discussion and debate.
  3. End with a ways to move forward. Everybody should know what was decided and the next steps.

Burnout or not, there are industries where the four-day office just can’t work—hospitals pop to mind first—and, for others, a reminder that at least someone needs to hang around to help out customers in need. After all, there’s no sense in giving productivity a boost if you lose all your clients.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—How the best workplaces are winning over employees with parental benefits
—What the best workplaces in the world have in common
—How to create benchmarks when you work for yourself
—5 proven ways to decrease stress at work—Ready to jump at that great job offer? Read this first
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