Microsoft Japan's experiment with 4-day workweeks has garnered a lot of attention for its seemingly astounding results: a 40 percent increase in productivity. Yet, Microsoft isn't the only one to boast such counterintuitive gains.

A New Zealand company called Perpetual Guardian conducted a similar experiment several years ago. The results were so positive that it made a third "rest day" an official policy. Plus, according to a ZipRecruiter spokesperson, data from over 50 million job posts on the employment marketplace shows the percentage of companies offering 4-day workweeks, while still small, has almost tripled in the last three years. In a similar move, a German tech consulting firm recently made headlines for its decision to work five-hour days instead of the typical eight.

These experiments all beg the same question. Is there something magical about working less that makes you more productive? Some would say, "yes", arguing that our brain's capacity to focus is limited to several hours per day.

While there may be truth to this, some occupations perform well despite violating this lower standard. For example, surgeons perform 12-hour long surgeries with the highest levels of focus by building stamina and taking intentional breaks.

Why Shortened Days and Weeks Aren't the Answer

The key to these productivity gains is not actually working less. Wharton professor Adam Grant explains on LinkedIn why these shortened work hours experiments are getting better results: "We can be as productive and creative in six focused hours as in eight unfocused hours." 

Shorter workdays are more productive than longer ones when held to a higher standard: "focused hours." Many accept the time wasted by being unfocused as an inevitable cost of doing work in the twenty-first century, failing to ask if there is a better way.

Shortening work days or hours forces people to rethink this. They have no choice but to figure out how to do more with less. Perpetual Guardian echoes this need for questioning in its advice to interested companies, suggesting they give employees time to think about how they can work differently. Being forced to question the status quo is the magic of the shortened workweeks.

This is not new news either. When Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow asked BCG consultants to take one night off per week some 10 years ago, they reduced their hours while improving client satisfaction. I had a similar experience as a consultant. By setting ambitious goals for my work hours and experimenting with different ways to become more efficient, I was able to work less than 40 hours per week when the average was 50 to 55.

You too can boost your productivity by 40 percent like Microsoft Japan without your company creating a 4-day or 5-hour policy. Simply, experiment with ways to become more efficient, and if you need some extra motivation, set an ambitious goal for yourself that will act as a forcing function.

If you're looking for a place to start your experiments, consider using some of the tactics shared by those who have tried a shortened workweek:

Replace meetings and email with real-time chat apps.

Applications like Slack and Microsoft Teams streamline team communication without bogging down people's calendars or inbox. A 2012 study by McKinsey suggested that "social technologies" like these could boost productivity by 20-25 percent.

Cut meeting duration and attendees.

Microsoft asked employees to limit meetings to 30 minutes and five attendees, while the German firm set a 15-minute cap. Though it's not a problem to have longer meetings on occasion, do a weekly calendar audit during which you question the necessity of every meeting on next week's schedule.

Schedule daily meetings-free time.

By intentionally selecting meeting times, you can create long, uninterrupted time blocks. One company ensured that no meetings were scheduled during a two hour period each morning and another scheduled no meetings on Thursday.

Ban social media.

The average professional spends over 30 minutes on social media during work each day. If you love social media that much, why not avoid it during work and then indulge in it later when you don't have to feel guilty about wasting work hours?

Leave your phone in your bag.

Just having your phone on the desk next to you increases mistakes and reduces productivity. If you need to be available in the case of an emergency, consider creating some sort of hotline for a select few people.

Limit small talk.

While small talk has its benefits, professionals rate socializing with coworkers as one of the top five greatest time-wasting activities. Replace the daily chitchat with scheduled lunches and other planned times for socialization.

The secret to shorter workweeks is not the number of days or hours you work. It's being forced to think about your work differently. Barnes, the head of Perpetual Guardian reportedly told the New Zealand Herald that should 4-day weeks become normal, productivity levels might slip back. Barnes' point is a good one. Should shorter workweeks become the norm, professionals will settle into a new status quo. Resist this, adopting an attitude of constant questioning and don't settle for working "eight unfocused hours."

Published on: Dec 3, 2019
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