The idea comes up often—and then passes. Now, a big corporate name has stepped into the fray and tested a four-day workweek, with results that could create some serious momentum toward a game-changing movement.
As an experiment, Microsoft gave its Japan-based employees all the Fridays in August off, while still paying them for five days. And the results were eye-opening: productivity, which the company measured as sales per employee, jumped 40% over August 2018. “It sounds to me that it’s a combination of feeling empowered and trusted and the ability to recharge to enable that added productivity,” says Evelyn Orr, president of the Korn Ferry Institute. It also helped that Microsoft used a clearly definable metric, sales per employee.
To be sure, a one-month trial is limited. But nearly every leader worldwide is looking for ways to improve employee engagement and productivity, while also taking part in the so-called purpose movement that takes work-life balances issues into account. Tinkering with the workweek, which usually involves having employees work more hours across fewer days, is an idea that managers are increasingly analyzing to see if workers can get more done in less time and not burn out.
In theory, the four-day workweek could be a boon to the large number of employees who value flexibility for a variety of family-related reasons, says Mark Royal, a senior director for Korn Ferry Advisory. The longer hours could also help make getting work done across international boundaries a little easier, he says. The longer people are at work, the better chance they’ll be able to connect with their colleagues who may be several time zones away.
For its part, Microsoft found that there were several non-people-related benefits too, including a 23% drop in electricity costs and a nearly 60% drop in the number of pages printed. The firm intends to try a similar experiment this winter.
A handful of other companies are also trying various alterations to the workweek. For instance, in 2018, the New Zealand insurer Perpetual Guardian made global headlines when it allowed academics to track the results of its own two-month-long, four-day workweek trial. Productivity there increased 20%.
Productivity isn’t the only thing that some firms want to improve. Right now, the burger chain Shake Shack has instituted a four-day workweek at some of its stores in the western United States to see whether the shorter week could cut the company’s employee turnover rate. Turnover in the hospitality industry is notoriously high, with an annual average above 70%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “If we can figure that out on scale, it could be a big opportunity,” Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti told Bloomberg earlier this year.
Not everyone is sold on shorter workweeks, of course. There are industries that believe longer hours are the way to get and stay ahead. Indeed, some technology companies in Asia embrace the so-called “996” system—working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
At a minimum, experts say these workweek experiments are certainly worth investigating. But there are several challenging questions that need to be answered before implementing a change.
For one thing, businesses that rely on teams have to figure out whether to give everyone on the team the same day off—which could bring any project to a halt—or stagger the days, which could inadvertently leave a team without a critical member at an inopportune time. Labor regulations and union contracts could also prevent some employees from having their schedules modified. Plus, businesses would have to ensure that enough people are around when customers have questions. “It would be hard to explain we’re closed when you need us,” Orr says.
Whatever changes are made, leaders have to be transparent about the change and who is affected, Royal says. “It is a compelling idea in terms of flexibility,” he says. “But it would have to come with some clear thinking about how work is done.”