Can the four-day week work?

Friday, 8 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Microsoft made headlines around the world this week when they tested out a four-day work week in its Japan offices and found that as a result employees were not only happier – but significantly more productive. This sparked off a conversation about whether the magical four-day work week could actually be introduced in other industries with equal effectiveness. But the results have remained mixed at best. 

For August, Microsoft Japan experimented with a new project called Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, giving its entire 2,300-person workforce five Fridays off in a row without decreasing pay.

The shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%, the company concluded at the end of the trial. As part of the program, the company had also planned to subsidise family vacations for employees up to ¥ 100,000 or $ 920.

Microsoft Japan President and CEO Takuya Hirano backed the experiment because he wanted to challenge workers with doing the same or more work while reducing the time by about 20%. At first glance it would appear that the gamble has paid off.

In addition to increased productivity, employees took 25% less time off during the trial and electricity use was down 23% in the office with the additional day off per week. Employees printed 59% fewer pages of paper during the trial. The vast majority of employees – 92% – said they liked the shorter week.

The experiment is not the first time long weekends have been experimented with in the corporate world. In 2018, New Zealand trust management company Perpetual Guardian trialled a four-day work week over two months for its 240 staff members. Employees reported experiencing a better work–life balance and improved focus in the office. Staff stress levels decreased by 7%. 

Many pundits have pointed out that the five-day work week was introduced by industrialists such as Henry Ford in the early 20th Century and was losing relevance in the 21st Century when most workers were moving out of factories and into desk jobs. 

However, economists have also argued that while a four-day work week sounds like a dream to many it would lead to an overall drop in productivity if implemented across the board. They argue that once the novelty of the idea wears off, people will return to their normal levels of productivity, resulting in the loss of time having a tangible impact. 

Moreover, while a four-day work week may be feasible to those employed in the services sector of an economy, those in the industrial and agriculture sectors would find it harder to transition into a shorter work week. This is made harder by the agriculture sector already having lower productivity levels that would be worsened by a shorter work week and could also lead to social unrest if only one part of the workforce would work fewer days. 

Overall, the unevenness of economies around the world means that four-day work remains, at least for the medium term, an unachievable goal.