Microsoft finds reducing the working week increases productivity

During the month of August 2019 Microsoft Japan closed its office every Friday and gave all members of staff special, paid, leave for those days.  The result?  Productivity increased.  This is, frankly, wholly unsurprising to me.  As I wrote in “The Long Hours Myth” There are rapidly diminishing, indeed negative, returns with increasing working hours.  Studies have found that for mentally demanding work once you get above around six hours a day your overall productivity reduces with increased hours worked.  Reducing the number of days worked – allowing employees to switch off and rest – similarly has positive upsides.

The Microsoft experimental also included capping the maximum length of meetings to 30 minutes and encouraging more face-to-face contact.  Could we see a future of people working six hours a day, four days a week?  It has been reported that Finland is considering such a move, but the breathless headlines belie the fact that this is more of an aspiration than a formal policy.

Such a change may seem like a fantasy, but there is precedent. In the early 1920s, workers at Henry Ford’s factories were typically working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. In 1926, after 12 years of internal research, analysis and testing, Henry Ford made a decision that shocked the industry. He cut the working week to 5, 8-hour days — a one third drop in the overall working week from 60 to 40 hours. At the same time he increased wages to ensure that his employees were compensated at the same — or a higher — level. His competitors were outraged. Until they saw that Ford’s productivity increased — he was getting more out of a worker in 40 hours than he previously had been in 60, which had a considerable benefit in reducing overall costs. The competitors soon followed suit themselves and over the following decades the 40-hour work week became the norm for American companies — supported by hundreds of tests and studies similar to the ones that Ford originally carried out.

Perhaps, a century on, a similar change can happen again….