Microsoft created headlines when they recently announced that they were able to boost productivity by 40% in their Japan offices this August by adopting a four-day workweek. This sounds great on the surface, but the eye-catching stories don’t tell the full story. Although it’s an interesting experiment, we shouldn't assume companies around the world should follow suit.
It’s no surprise that Japan was the location of choice for this test. Japanese work culture has become synonymous with burnout—nearly a quarter of Japanese companies require their employees to put in 80 or more hours of overtime a month. Overwork is such a problem that employees are dying of fatigue. In addition to exhaustion, Japanese employees are often driven by a desire to compete with their peers, conform to the accepted work culture, and meet or exceed their company’s unrealistic expectations of efficiency. If any country could work less and still be as—if not more—productive it would be Japan.
The Flaws of the Experiment
This is why the experiment fails. Japan’s workforce and productivity stood to benefit the most from a day off. Multiple studies have shown that when you clock 250+ hours a month, productivity suffers. No one works at 100% capacity when they are exhausted, anxious, and stressed—regardless of the tasks they’re completing. When a company offers chronically tired, overworked employees the opportunity to rest and recover, they will make better use of their time in the office. They are more alert and can solve problems more quickly with an appropriate amount of sleep and the incentive of a shortened workweek.
There is also no guarantee that the boost in productivity would continue beyond the first month. When I first started out in my career, if my boss had announced a trial run of a four-day workweek, I would have worked harder than ever to make sure the change was permanent. Productivity may plateau when the “revolutionary” policy becomes normal after a few months. If Microsoft announced this as their permanent policy, that spike in productivity could fall off. One month is too short a time cycle to draw conclusions about the long-term effects.
Why Not the United States
This is why I am cautious about the experiment’s findings. Some people may use Microsoft’s example as definitive proof that every investment banker, software developer, and doctor should only work four days, but they’re either missing or ignoring the broader context. Microsoft didn’t declare a permanent four-day workweek for their offices across the globe. They launched a small pilot program in the most overworked country in the world. If they thought it would have had the same headlining-grabbing results in the U.S., they would have launched the program in Seattle, not Tokyo.
Microsoft’s experiment is worth a read for anyone involved in the HR space, but many are jumping to conclusions. Elements of Japan’s culture of overwork are present in the U.S., but the two situations are not identical. In general, businesses and society need to put more emphasis on work-life balance. Many of the most overworked, stressed-out people in the U.S. are hourly workers working two or more jobs to make ends meet. And yet, HR professionals are only looking at the situation within their organization. An entire culture shift to address the systemic issues of burnout is necessary rather than just at a single company.
This isn’t to say HR professionals shouldn’t be creative or radical in their approach. I personally work to give my employees ample PTO, offering them every other Friday off and extended periods of working remotely. Other businesses can, and in my opinion, should follow suit. If you’re a decision-maker at your company, be willing to fundamentally challenge industry standards and improve the lives of your employees. Most of the best solutions for a company are tailored to your business’s values and culture, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” policy.