A 4-day workweek boosted productivity by 40% at Microsoft Japan. Would it work in Canada?

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In August 2019, employees at Microsoft Japan were asked to work only four days a week — instead of the usual five — without a pay cut as part of an experiment.

The results of this experiment were overwhelmingly positive and could even signal a major shift in the modern workplace.

In a recent press release about the study, the company announced that productivity increased by 40 per cent with a four-day workweek. The business also saw an uptick in efficiency and savings, with a 23 per cent decrease in electricity costs and a 58 per cent decrease in printing paper use.

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This isn’t the first time a workplace has had success implementing a four-day workweek. New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian tested the model in 2018 and saw a 20 per cent increase in productivity along with a 27 per cent reduction in work-related stress.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Canadians are in support of spending less time at work. An Angus Reid poll conducted on the heels of the Perpetual Guardian trial found that 47 per cent of Canadians believe moving from a 40-hour to 30-hour workweek is a “good idea.”

A ‘winning solution’

Now, experts like Eddy Ng, a professor of management at Bucknell University in Pennslyvania and the school’s James and Elizabeth Freeman chair, are hoping companies in the West will take note.

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“Hopefully, it gains traction,” Ng told Global News.

“I think it’s good for productivity, it’s good for mental health and it forces us to rethink how we do work.”

Ng sees the four-day workweek as a winning solution for both employers and employees because it forces workplaces to eliminate time-wasting practices, encourages workers to treat their time more wisely and eliminates overhead costs.

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“[Employees] aren’t necessarily working any less — they’re just condensing [five days] into four,” he said. “This allows the company to save money because they don’t have people coming in [on that fifth day] so they don’t need to pay for overhead, like electricity.”

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As a result of working one day less per week, employees at Microsoft Japan were forced to make the average meeting length 30 minutes instead of one hour — a practice Ng would “love to see” at more companies.

“It’s increasingly common to go to a meeting and see that almost everybody is on their phone or [tablet], which means the meeting is not really necessary,” he said.
“[A four-day workweek] would force meeting organizers [and] managers to rethink what can be cut out: information dissemination meetings can be removed, and you only get together to solve problems.”
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However, Ng worries there could be some caveats to studies like the one conducted at Microsoft Japan. For starters, he said studies like this one can “encourage positive results.”

“Employees could be working harder just to make up for [the lost time] because they know this is a trial period and, of course, they want it to continue,” said Ng.

It could also be the case that what employees do with an extra day off work directly harms productivity overall.

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If would be good for an employee’s mental health to spend the extra day with loved ones or pursuing a hobby, for example. But some employees may use the extra time to get another job, which could be to the detriment of the employee’s first job.

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“Some people need to make ends meet, but that won’t improve productivity at your other job. In fact, you’ll get more stressed out,” Ng said.

However, Ng still advocates for the four-day workweek because he believes it would foster better mental health in employees.

A move towards better mental health

“The way we do work has changed,” said Ng. “We used to work nine to five — now we work all the time. The minute you get up in the morning, you look at your phone, right?”

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Around-the-clock work, fostered by advances in technology, is leading workers to burn out at faster rates than ever before. A 2018 Gallup poll found that nearly a quarter of Americans reported feeling burned out at work either “very often” or “always.”

“Burned-out employees are 63 per cent more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job,” the poll stated. “Even scarier, burned-out employees are 23 per cent more likely to visit the emergency room.”

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In Ng’s view, the four-day workweek would force employees to truly unplug for a long period of time, allowing for better mental and physical health overall.

“Some people are addicted to work. We spend so much of our lives working. It’s become a central part of our identity,” he said.

“Having a four-day workweek forces people to disengage with work. That’s a good thing.”

Could Canada have a four-day workweek?

Whether your workplace can adopt a four-day model will largely depend on the industry you work in, Ng admitted.

“You can’t test a four-day workweek in retail … that would be like the kiss of death [for that type of work],” he said.
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However, he believes a four-day workweek is achievable for most workplaces.

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“All it takes is … a tipping point when enough employers do it,” Ng said. “It doesn’t have to be 50 per cent [of employers].”

All it would take is for a few more big employers, like Microsoft, to adopt the practice, Ng said.

“Now it becomes, in order to attract the best and the brightest, I have to do it, too. Microsoft is doing this. I’m a competitor. I have to do it, too.”

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— With files from Rebecca Joseph

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