How Would the 4-Day Work Week Experiment in Japan Work in Silicon Valley?

Did you hear about the Microsoft 4-day work week experiment in Japan? Many publications reported it as a roaring success, but no one seems to know if that remained an experiment. It turns out the second experiment will be conducted in winter, but who would like that experiment undertaken also in Silicon Valley?

For those who haven’t heard the story, Microsoft’s Japan office experimented with a four day work-week in August. The reports were glowing: 40 percent increase in  productivity boost. Even more remarkable for a culture used to pushing work to the limits, 90 percent said they preferred the shorter week. For the hardest-working nation in the world, that was a paradigm shift in thinking. 

But it simply makes sense if you’re like social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk who has said he brings high energy to his work 8 hours in a day. It does depend on the energy level you bring to work, more than about showing up for work, the latter being the predominant work culture in Asia. Has anyone actually measured the energy level they bring to a job? That is one yardstick not being used in workplaces.

In any case, it’s good to hear Microsoft did this experiment in Japan, as most workers in Asia work longer hours, including weekends, compared to their Western counterparts. But what many realize these days, even from workers in Silicon Valley, it’s not how many hours you put in, but how smart you work. 

In 2015, Japan’s culture of overwork came to a head when a Dentsu employee died by suicide on Christmas Day after doing excessive overtime work. In 2017, a Japanese reporter died after clocking 159 hours of overtime a month before her death.

These incidents resulted in the popularity of the word “karoshi,” meaning “death by overwork.” But there’s hope. Japan has since introduced “workstyle reform” to Japan, including an annual cap of 720 overtime hours per person. And if Microsoft’s 4-day work week experiment works in Japan, then it can work everywhere. Also, this video from a popular popular YouTuber in Japan has a contrasting viewpoint.

Efficiency needs to be redefined in light of the Microsoft Japan experiment, considering the results from the first experiment sparked interesting insights:  

  • Microsoft Japan reported it used about 23 percent less electricity and printed around 59 percent fewer pages during the experiment. 
  • Microsoft Japan will conduct a second experiment over the winter and will encourage more flexible working, but it won’t include the shorter work week
  • But previous studies show that giving employees more flexibility increases productivity; a New Zealand company permanently adopted the four day workweek in 2018, after a trial resulted in a 24 percent productivity increase.
  • The Harvard Business Review reported that a Chinese travel agency experienced a 13 percent productivity boost when it allowed call center employees to work from home. 
  • In the U.S., a 2017 Stanford University study found the average worker is willing to give up 20 percent of their pay to avoid their schedule being set with short notice, and 8 percent of their pay in exchange for the option to work from home.
  • A work-from-anywhere program for patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office showed productivity gains of 4.4 percent, according to a 2019 working paper by the Harvard Business School.

Would this work in highly competitive USA? A company in Portland experimented with a four day work week before returning to a five day schedule, because the owner realized a shorter week meant its competitors had a leg up. 

How would the Googles of the world enact a 4-day work week? It’d be interesting to find out from the tech giants in San Jose, as some have said work in any of them feels like a 4-day work week anyway because they offer flexibility and more specific workloads plus the conveniences of living close to work.