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Microsoft Japan switched to four-day workweek — sales skyrocketed 40%

Maybe it's time to show this report your employer?

SOPA Images / Getty
  • Microsoft Japan recently completed its experimental "Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019" program.
  • The program involved giving employees five consecutive Fridays off, cutting the duration of meetings, and encouraging online chats instead of face-to-face ones.
  • Some research echoes Microsoft Japan's recent report, suggesting that cutting the workweek can boost productivity.


What's one way for a tech company to boost sales, increase employee satisfaction and cut overhead costs? Switch to a four-day workweek.

That's the takeaway of a new report from Microsoft Japan, which recently wrapped up its experimental "Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019." The experiment involved giving employees five consecutive Fridays off with pay, limiting meetings to 30 minutes or fewer, and encouraging online messaging as opposed to face-to-face chats.

In addition, some employees worked three-day weeks and were allowed to work remotely. The company also provided financial assistance to employees for "expenses related to self-development, family travel expenses, social contribution activities, etc."

In the new report, Microsoft Japan compared data on sales performance and other metrics from this summer to the same months last year. Compared to August 2018, the results showed:

  • Number of pages printed in August 2019: -58.7%
  • Rise in sales per employees in August 2019: +39.9%
  • Amount of "30 minute meetings" in August 2019: +46%

'Karoshi' and karojisatsu'

About 92 percent of employees said they liked switching to the four-day workweek. That's perhaps unsurprising for a company based in Japan, where the severe work culture requires many people to work overtime for little to no extra pay, sometimes leaving them dangerously exhausted. In fact, being overworked to death — by stroke, heart attack, etc. — is common enough that the Japanese have a word for it: karoshi. There's also a word for workers who commit suicide due to work-related stress: karojisatsu.

Stories of karoshi and karojisatsu — such as a 31-year-old journalist who logged 159 hours of overtime in the month before she died of heart failure — have encouraged Japan to pass laws promoting work-life balance, including caps on overtime hours. Still, critics of Japan's work culture argue the regulations — some of which allow employees to work 100 hours of overtime in a month — don't go far enough.

Work-life balance

But, like Microsoft Japan, some companies have taken matters into their own hands, passing strange policies to discourage overwork, such as making employees wear purple "embarrassment capes" if they work too late, or flying music-playing drones around the office to announce it's time to leave.

More broadly, research suggests that cutting the workweek and making schedules more flexible can boost productivity and employee satisfaction. The Harvard Business Review, for example, reported that a Chinese travel agency saw a 13-percent increase in productivity when it allowed call center employees to work remotely. In New Zealand, one company permanently switched to a four-day workweek in 2018, leading to a 24-percent productivity increase.

Richard Branson's utopian vision of the workweek

To some business leaders, switching to a less intensive workweek is inevitable, as Virgin Group founder Richard Branson wrote in a 2018 blog post:

"The idea of working five days a week with two day weekends and a few weeks of holiday each year has become ingrained in society. But it wasn't always the case, and it won't be in the future. Could people eventually take three and even four day weekends? Certainly. Will job-sharing increase? I think so. People will need to be paid the same or even more for working less time, so they can afford more leisure time. That's going to be a difficult balancing act to get right, but it can be done. If it works for individuals and works for businesses, everyone would want to spend more time with their loved ones, more time exploring their passions, more time seeing the world outside of an office and more time getting healthy and fit."

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