Future Workweek? Microsoft Increases Productivity in Overworked Japan by 40% With 3-Day Weekend

Monday, 04 November 2019 - 1:24PM
Technology
Monday, 04 November 2019 - 1:24PM
Future Workweek? Microsoft Increases Productivity in Overworked Japan by 40% With 3-Day Weekend
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It's no secret that, embedded in modern Japanese culture is a work ethic that, at least to western eyes, borders on the pathological. The BBC reports that this is not merely a question of taking one's job home either: in a country where nearly 25% of companies have employees working more than 80 overtime (OT) hours a month – with 12% of companies pushing that number to 100 OT hours a month: the equivalent of a 15 hour work day – some people will literally work themselves to death, sometimes by suicide, but usually due to heart attacks or stress as a result of a starvation diet (eating takes up time that could be spent working) and stress. The phenomena is common enough that there's a word for it: karoshi, which means "death by overwork." 


That the laws allow for 20 days of leave a year doesn't seem to make much of a difference: the BBC notes that 35% of workers don't take a single day of it. Despite this, people – employers included – recognize a need for change. According to Business Insider, the 2016 suicide of Matsuri Takahashi – a 24-year-old ad female ad agency worker who committed suicide on Christmas Day after working a 105-hour month – led the Japanese government to introduce Premium Fridays, which allows workers to leave their office at 3pm on the last Friday of the month. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, we're not faring much better. In 2017, Glassdoor reported that Americans, while slightly less tormented by the temporal demands placed on them by their employers, typically only use about half of their vacation days. 


The implied thinking is that if you work twice as many hours, you'll complete twice as much work. That's likely flawed logic unless you're a robot. As anyone who's ever stayed late at the office, worked a double-shift, or crammed for an exam will be able to attest, productivity eventually hits a point of sharply diminishing returns: you simply get less done. There's a deeper problem suggested by the inability of the government to initiate meaningful change, however, and it has nothing to do with understanding mathematical curves as they relate to productivity. The problem may have to with the identification with one's job and, by extension, one's company. 


Microsoft seems to understand – or at least intuit – this cultural nuance. In addressing the issue among their own workers in Japan this past August, they opted for a very different approach: they conducted a month-long experiment called the Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, which gave most of Microsoft's 2280 employees in Japan every Friday off without affecting their annual vacation days. That's right: they shortened the work week to four days a week. If you worked at Microsoft, you couldn't come in on Friday: the office was closed. 


The results of the experiment were as immediate as they were startling, though in the interest of transparency, I have not analyzed the data (the tables are in Japanese) for myself. According to Japanese news agency Sora News 24, Microsoft employees printed 59 percent fewer papers, and used 23 percent less electricity in the office. All of those add up to savings. However, saving money at the expense of productivity isn't really saving money... well, fortunately the opposite was the case here. They found that employee productivity went up 39.9 – we'll round to 40 – percent, much of which was aided by eliminating unnecessary meetings and encouraging people to use Microsoft's messaging platform. Moreover, employee satisfaction with the plan was overwhelmingly positive. The company plans another experiment later this year and will solicit employee input on ways to prevent burnout and karoshi. 


Microsoft's understanding that its employees look to its corporate culture and leaders – and not the government – for guidance on how to sustain a live-work balance speaks to a degree of knowledge that transcends technology. As the world becomes more connected, this kind of understanding will become more important than ever before. Cultures aren't built by governments: they're built by people. As such, it is incumbent on companies and leaders to be aware of the toxicity that exists in and around their own business cultures and effect change as needed to confront it. 


In the meantime, I beg you: take your vacation days. It's a short life, meant to be lived and lived fully.
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