A Short Workweek at a Japanese Company Led to a Massive Boost in Productivity

TGI ... Thursday?. OmerYontar/Shutterstock

Since the early 1950s, when Japan set about rebuilding its post-war economy in earnest, few cultures could rival its seemingly tireless work tradition.

While the global average is around 40 hours per week, Japanese workers often tally 80 or even 100 hours.

And, unfortunately, it's starting to show. Those notoriously long hours have given rise to widespread depression among employees — and even a uniquely Japanese phenomenon called karoshi, which literally means "death by work."

Which is why one company's recent experiment couldn't come at a better time. In August, Microsoft Japan bucked that long, costly trend of burning every drop of an employee's midnight oil — and actually shortened the workweek with no cut in pay.

For the month, employees were given Fridays off. Dubbed the Work-Life Choice Challenge Summer 2019, the idea was to see if happier, healthier employees could do more ... in less time.

And employees actually exceeded expectations. In fact, during that month, worker productivity, as measured by how many sales were made, improved by nearly 40%.

How is it possible to do more in less time?

One key factor was the focus on more tightly run company meetings. As part of the experiment, they were capped at 30 minutes, and their overall frequency was drastically curtailed. The shortened workweek made time a little more precious — too precious for planning meetings, problem-solving meetings or those dubiously dubbed "strategy sessions" every company over-indulges in. If anything, an abundance of meetings demonstrates that managers have more time on their hands than staffers do. At Microsoft Japan, that luxury was taken away across the board.

An abbreviated week was a focused week.

It goes without saying that staff morale also got a boost. In its report, Microsoft Japan noted that — surprise, surprise — 92.1 percent of employees approved of the shortened week.

(It's possible they also really appreciated spending one more day without the company of the 8 percent who didn't enjoy the extra day off.)

Japanese office workers standing outside of a building.
Japanese employees have been known to work more than 80 hours a week. Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock.com

But the shortened workweek still has a long way to go before it changes a corporate mindset that has long pushed in the opposite direction, and not just in Japan. Hours worked in Britain and the U.S. have actually increased since the 2000s.

And, as the BBC reports, some industry leaders actually want more from their employees. Like Jack Ma, co-founder of Chinese online shopping giant Alibaba, He recently called 12-hour working days — where staff clocks in from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — "a blessing."

Even Microsoft Japan, though buoyed by its success, hasn't committed to making a four-day workweek the new normal, although the company plans to try it again next summer.

At the very least, the trial offers hope for those still trying to scratch out some semblance of a work-life balance.

But if you're going to go out on a limb and take up this issue with your boss, it might be a good idea to mention what's in it for the company.

At Microsoft Japan, those three-day weekends amounted to real cost reductions: 58.7 percent fewer pages printed, 23.1 percent less electricity used and employees, no surprise here, took fewer days off during the month.

That's money in the company's pocket. If you can't make a similar case at your company, you might as well check to see how many vacation days you have left. Because for all the myriad benefits of a shorter workweek, nothing adds up for an employer quite like the bottom line.

"What do you do about the fact that firms' incentives don't align with the social desirability of changing this problem?" Frances Rosenbluth, a political science professor at Yale University tells Business Insider. "That's a hard one."