Late last year, Microsoft's Japan office switched to a four-day workweek and saw productivity shoot up 40 percent. The story generated headlines around the globe, but it was actually just the latest in a parade of positive experiments in switching to a shorter workweek. 

Everyone from an Australian digital marketing agency to a West Coast tech firm to a Swedish town has greatly reduced hours only to see profits and productivity soar and employee happiness predictably rise along with them. 

At first these reports might sound too good to be true, but a variety of research suggests there's plenty of slack in the workdays of most knowledge workers. We are rarely productive anything close to all the hours we're supposedly working. A shorter workweek pushes us to be more efficient at work so we get the same amount done in less time. That frees up time outside the office for activities that bring us joy, creativity, and the ability to thrive long-term without burning out.

In short, for many businesses the four-week workweek has been a good idea for many years. Now is the perfect time to make the switch to reduced working hours, argues author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in The Atlantic.

Change your schedule, not just your space

"Redesigning space is not the only option for businesses that want to reopen while lowering the risk of a second wave," Soojung-Kim Pang points out. "They can redesign their time, too. Reducing hours, without cutting salaries, might help many companies speed up the return to normalcy, and help them prepare for the future as well." 

Soojung-Kim Pang goes on to cite many reduced-hours success stories (some companies cut a whole day, others shorten hours each day) to show that working shorter weeks can lead to getting more done. But he adds to this basic argument, noting that with people working less in the office, opportunities are open to stagger their hours so they're not all crammed into your space at once. 

"Running two six-hour shifts would offer customers the convenience of longer hours, and could be attractive to businesses eager to recover sales lost during the lockdown. Companies that want to maintain an eight-hour day could reopen with less-crowded offices if half the staff worked Monday through Thursday, half worked Tuesday through Friday, and everyone worked from home one to two days a week," he offers as examples.

A crisis, the old saying goes, is a terrible thing to waste. The current pandemic is a tragedy, but it might just also offer employers the perfect opportunity to creatively rethink work schedules that have long been in need of an update.