Inside Microsoft's productive 4-day work week

Is a 4-day policy feasible in Asia?

Inside Microsoft's productive 4-day work week

Can a four- or three-day work week be effective in Asia?

Microsoft Japan’s successful trial over the summer acts as a positive case study for leaders considering the option.

A report on the summer showed a 40% jump in employee productivity, compared with the same period last year. Almost all employees also cited feeling satisfied at home and work with the shorter week.

The pilot is encouraging for a country notorious for its culture of overwork. The government as well as employers have been pushing for reform in recent years, in hopes of improving the unhealthy work environment and reducing ‘karoshi’, or death by overwork.

READ MORE: Suicide continues to be the main cause of death among working-age Japanese

Microsoft Japan was one of the proactive players and established “Work-Life Choice” over the summer as a philosophy to reform work culture.

The new management strategy aimed to create an environment where each employee can engage in flexi-work to accommodate both their work and personal schedules.

“By implementing a new in-house practice aimed at promoting ‘Work-Life Choice’, we challenged all employees to work in a short time, take a rest, and learn well, to further improve productivity and creativity,” wrote the report.

Initiative rollout
This summer, Microsoft implemented two initiatives:

  1. Provide opportunities for a four- and three-day week trial
  2. Launch an employee support program

For the first part of the rollout, the company closed the office for all Fridays throughout August 2019. Full-time employees took special paid leave and took the day off.

To encourage adoption of the practice, they aided with expenses related to things like self-development, family travel and social activities.

Microsoft also reformed internal communication methods to ensure employees worked more efficiently in a shorter time.

This helped to cut down on excessive time spent on non-essential meetings and emails and kept employees to the four-day work weeks. They also used online collaboration tools to encourage quick chats, if meetings were unnecessary.

READ MORE: Inside Microsoft’s HR transformation

The report noted several challenges:

  1. Some functions and departments were more effective than others in applying the practice
  2. Some managers and departments still lack understanding about different individual working styles to accommodate them
  3. The change may come as an inconvenience to customers, depending on employee function

Monitoring results
On top of the ‘softer’ culture rollout, Microsoft measured crucial performance indicators. This included monitoring time and cost-savings, improvement in productivity, as well as employee satisfaction.

As August saw shorter weeks, the company managed to reduce overuse of printing by 59% and electricity consumption by 23%.

Employee productivity went up 40% versus the same period in 2018, while 46% of staffers stuck to the ‘30-minute meeting’ guideline. There was a 21% increase in remote conferences, compare with usage from April to June 2019.

Employees also cited overwhelming satisfaction with the new arrangement:

  • 94% gave a positive overall evaluation of ‘Work-Life Choice’
  • 92% was pro four- and three-day work weeks
  • 97% said it impacted their work
  • 97% said it made a difference to their personal lives
  • 84% cited possible behaviour change for society in general

In addition, management observed an impact on employee leave and welfare programs.

  • Over half of employees (55%) took both their summer and annual paid leaves, on top of the special Friday leave.
  • Three times as many staffers used Microsoft’s travel expense benefit over August
  • Work-Life Choice employee support program encouraged participation in wellness activities: sports and leisure (43%), domestic travel (21%), relaxation (7%), self-development (7%)

READ MORE: Microsoft president reveals what a 'successful CHRO' looks like

Due to the overwhelming positive impact on welfare and work culture, Microsoft Japan will embark on another round of trials in winter.

The firm plans to hold an internal contest to involve employees and get ideas on how the company can work, rest and learn better over winter.

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