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Workers at Microsoft Japan enjoyed an enviable advantage this summer: working four days a week, enjoying a three-day weekend – and getting their normal pay cut in five days. The result, says the company, was a 40% increase in productivity.
Microsoft Japan says it became more efficient in several areas, including lower power costs, which fell by 23%. And when workers took five Fridays in August, they printed nearly 60 percent fewer pages.
All employees who took free Fridays were paid special leave, says the company. Encouraged by the results, it plans to hold a similar trial in the winter.
Due to the shorter working week, the company also put its meetings on a diet. The standard duration of a meeting was reduced from 60 minutes to 30 – an approach used for almost half of all meetings. In a related cut, the standard attendance at these sessions was cut short by five employees.
In a blog post announcing the plan in July, Microsoft Japan often said there was no reason for meetings to run for an hour, or to tie up more people from the same team.
Citing the need for a change in time management, the Microsoft division also encouraged people to use collaborative chat channels instead of "wasting" emails and meetings.
The news aroused excitement among many workers in Japan. A sampling of comments from Asian news site Sora News 24 ranges from "Here's to hoping my boss reads this" to "So I guess I feel ready to be ready for the week by Wednesday is pretty natural."  Four-day work sessions came headlines around the world in spring 2018, when Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand-based trust management company, announced a 20% increase in employee productivity and a 45% increase in employee workforce balance following an attempt to pay people their usual salary for working four days. In October last year, the company made the policy permanent.
The Microsoft trial doubled about Perpetual Guardian's productivity gain. But for now, the company does not say whether it will test four-day work week policy elsewhere or consider making it permanent.
Noted that Microsoft Japan's "Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer" was a pilot project, a Microsoft spokesperson told NPR via email, "In the spirit of a growth mindset, we are always looking for new ways to innovate and leverage our own technology to enhance the experience of our employees around the world. "
be heard by the prospect of a three-day weekend, but trials like the last in Japan are still just drops in a very large bucket of companies and workers around the world. While employers could now be more likely to experiment by shortening their own workweek, workplace analyst and author Dan Schawbel says that for now, employees are more likely to focus on a more common workplace benefit: flexibility.
"Younger people actually choose work flexibility over health care, even though spending in America is quite high," Schawbel says.
In the United States, Schawbel sees schedule flexibility and a four-day week as two ways for employers to ease what he calls an ongoing burnout crisis.
Technology is at the heart of the debate about burnout and workplace planning. The same electronic tools that have made working from home easier than ever have also made it more difficult for employees to leave the job completely when they are not in the office.
It is an area already explored in Europe, home to some of the world's strongest laws and work-life balance. France has given employees the right to resign from their job, for example, limiting email and other communications after hours.
But there are indications that the shorter work week may increasingly become a political issue, similar to parental leave and other benefits. In the United Kingdom, the Labor Party recently made the four-day working week – with no change in pay – one of the key policies.
Supporters of such traits point to a general trend toward shorter working weeks. When Labor embraced the idea, shadow chancellor John McDonnell was quoted by the Labor List as saying, "the full-time average working week fell from almost 65 hours in the 1860s to 43 hours in the 1970s."
Since the 1970s, the working week has stopped shrinking despite a sharp increase in workers' productivity, McDonnell said. And, as US economists have noted, compensation has lagged behind productivity over the same period.
In 2017, a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found productivity from 1987 to 2015 increased by as much as 5% annually in industrial sectors from information to industry and retail – but compensation never grew by more than 2% each year in the same period. .
Over decades of stagnant wage growth, it seems that many workers are now seeking more flexibility – and dream of a shorter work week.
However, the current enthusiasm for a four-day working week should not be taken as proof that today's employees simply want to avoid work altogether. To illustrate this point, Schawbel refers to what he calls the "money issue" from a frequently cited 2018 survey he conducted with Kronos.
The question was okay, as Schawbel remembers: "If your salary is constant, how many days a week do you want to work?"
One of the potential answers to this question was simply, "None." But only 4 % of workers chose that answer. Only a few more chose a day or two.
The largest share – 34% – said they want a four-day work week. The current standard five-day week received 28% support. And 20% said they prefer a three-day work week.
"It's important," Schawbel says, "because it shows that people want to work."