Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Opinion | The modern case for a shortened work week

The findings of a Microsoft trial run suggest that a four-day work week could boost productivity sharply. Whether it is widely adopted, though, could depend on the context

The dramatic results of a trial conducted by Microsoft Inc. have strengthened the case for a four-day work week. In August, the software major used its Japanese operations for an experiment under a project called Work-Life Choice Challenge. As many as 2,300 employees were given five consecutive Fridays off, in addition to the usual Saturday-Sunday weekends, and what the company claims to have found is startling, to say the least. Fewer hours at work resulted in a nearly 40% jump in the productivity of its people, as the firm has reported, over the same period the previous year. The measure was sales-per-employee, a topline metric that many companies use to assess the value being generated by a workforce. According to Microsoft, these gains could partly be attributed to meetings being capped at 30 minutes and the heightened use of remote conferences. The latter may seem a little like a plug for digital technology, but it’s the overall success of the idea that deserves our attention. The company has also reported savings on resources like electricity. In all, a shortened work week appears to have spelt happier workers and greater efficiency. Whether other organizations will take a cue from this, however, is still an open question.

Microsoft’s was not the first such trial. A similar test was recently done by a New Zealand trust management company, for example, which claimed to have recorded a 20% rise in employee productivity as the direct outcome of a four-day week. As one might expect, a global movement appears to be gaining momentum that seeks to overturn assumptions of a direct link between hours put in and output delivered. The concept of a five-day week, argue advocates of long weekends, is best seen as a relic of an industrial age that required hands at the till. The days of repetitive factory jobs are long over, they say, and artificial intelligence may render even desk jobs redundant that require people to carry out sharply defined tasks over and over again. Routine operations tend to make workers weary, resulting in the sort of task elasticity that Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British scholar, turned into a law of human nature. Work, he famously observed, expands to fill the time available for its completion. In the information age, what companies increasingly pay for is the minds of those they hire. And well-rested and widely exposed minds, many reckon, are best placed to deliver the goods.

That’s the theory. What may actually happen if almost half the week is off, is anybody’s guess. Had Microsoft run its trial for a whole year, some suspect, the results would be less cheery. The fact that offices are still deemed necessary in a web-linked world implies that the “uncaged mind" idea has its limits. Also, cultural cues tend to differ. In India, especially, many top managers are inclined to go by Douglas McGregor’s Theory X of motivation, by which workers need constant supervision to perform well, since self-motivation is rare. In this view, people need to be pushed to work, lest they slacken. But if Indians tend to be overworked, as many surveys have found, it may also be because of job-loss fears and highly deferential office cultures, where hard work is not just valued, but typically defined in terms of time. Clocking in and out may be less relevant for some firms, but not all. Still, it’s about time four-day-week trials took place in India.