Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Tag: japan

Microsoft Japan’s 4-day week


One of the concerns that some people raise about the 4-day workweek is that while it might work great at little places that are nimble and flexible, it’s not going to work at larger organizations that have a lot of diverse functions. Size isn’t actually the limit people think: as my book SHORTER (US | UK) explains, there are companies in Japan and Korea that have a thousand people or more and have moved to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days In recent years.

This summer, Microsoft Japan successfully trialed a 4-day workweek for its 2300 employees. During the month of August, the company closed on each of the five Fridays, then measured the impact on everything from electricity use and employee happiness, to paper use and employee productivity to the number of meetings the company held.

It should come as no surprise that the results were very positive.

Scenes from Tokyo

There’s some background that isn’t always getting covered in the English-language press about the experiment that is worth noting.

First, the Japanese government and Japanese companies are conducting a lot of experiments now to find improved ways of working, and to cut back on the notorious culture of overwork. Partly this is driven by the aging of the workforce and other social concerns, and partly it’s an effort to promote remote work before the 2020 Olympics, in order to reduce congestion. The Metropolitan Tokyo government, for example, ran “Telework Days 2019” from late July to early September.

Second, the 4-day week challenge also builds on years of earlier Microsoft programs aimed at creating greater flexibility and work-life balance. Microsoft Japan started encouraging remote work in 2012; two years later their “Telecom Day” had become “Telecom Week,” and two years after that, “Working Style Reform Week.” In fact, since 2015, working hours had been reduced 80 hours per year (about 600K hours across the company). Like at Cybozu, they’re trying to broaden flexibility and choice, and accommodate a variety of different family schedules. Microsoft Japan had also been working on shortening meetings, with the aim of resetting the cultural default for a meeting from 60 minutes to 30, and reducing the number of people who attend meetings.

Finally, the trial was designed partly as a test / demonstration of Microsoft Teams, their groupware product. Of course, there’s a long tradition in software companies of using your own products, as both a way to find bugs, and to prove the value of your product.

Scenes from Tokyo

So what was the trial?

In its barest outlines, the trial was a month-long experiment to measure the impact of a four-day workweek in which 1) salaries were not cut, 2) the company made efforts to increase productivity or become more efficient, and 3) people were encouraged to do things outside work. (This being Japan, that kind of official sanction for extracurriculars does send an important signal to many people.)

August had five Fridays this month, so people have five extra days off. Technically these days were called paid leave, so salaries didn’t go down. The company offered subsidized weekend trips and technical courses, and would reimburse up to 100,000 yen spent on courses or for expenses incurred doing volunteer work. Just under 2300 people were involved.

The project was also meant to showcase the potential for Microsoft Teams to make work more efficient and people more productive.

So what happened? The company talked about a three-pronged approach to improving efficiency during the trial, and reported several measures:

Deleting: This category basically includes indicators consuming or spend less time, money, resources, etc. In this category, they report reductions in the number of working days (-25%), pages of paper printed (-57%), and electricity consumption (-23%). The last two are interesting partly because companies generally don’t try hard to measure these (and I confess I didn’t ask about them in interviews I’ve done). The electricity consumption number is especially valuable because our models of the impact of reduced working hours on energy consumption are based on relatively small data-sets so far, and lots of smaller companies that go to 4-day weeks don’t pay their own utility bill (it’s included in the rent), so the more data we have on this, the better.

Improving: This includes improvements in productivity, adoption of more efficient ways of working and collaborating. Labor productivity, measured by sales divided by the number of employees, went up 39.9%, but there were also increases in the adoption of 30-minute meetings (+46%) and remote conferencing (+21%). During the 4-day week, meetings were cut to 15 minutes, and the number of participants capped at five (though in practice the number of meetings increased slightly).

Satisfying: This is a measure of how people feel about the new schedule, and how their work-life balance changed. Overall 94% of employees reported positive experiences, and 92% were satisfied specifically with the 4-day week. (One partial exception was the sales department, which disliked being out of touch with customers on Fridays.) 55% of employees took summer vacations, and 6% took 2+ weeks off. There was a 3x increase in domestic travel subsidies for 1+ week vacations, and a 1.7x increase in sponsored activities.

Regarding Microsoft Teams usage during 4-day week, the highlights were replacement of email with chat (which theoretically is more efficient, though I’m skeptical of this, given the complaints I’ve heard of Slack overload); “time reform” to reduce waste; and support by Microsoft’s AI MyAnalytics, about which no one is saying very much.

It also sounds like Microsoft was working on helping employees build in time for concentrated work or “focus time” into the schedules.

Microsoft Japan says it will implement its own work project “Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Winter” this winter, around theme ”Rest smartly, work in short time, enjoy the challenge.” Which could have been the subtitle of my next book.

To me, what’s significant here is that the experiment shows that a large company can implement (albeit temporarily) a 4-day workweek across a number of offices and functions; have substantial, measurable improvements; and create a prototype that they can continue to refine, and maybe make permanent, in the future.

Planet Money on “Japan’s Worker Shortage” and working hours

Scenes from Tokyo

NPR’s Planet Money has a piece on efforts in Japan to allow people to work less:

Some companies in Japan are going bankrupt because of the country’s critical labor shortage. Officials point to a declining birthrate — which has led to a shortage of workers — and an infamously demanding workplace culture that is discouraging some people from entering the job market at all. This past April, Japan’s legislative body introduced a novel solution to these two problems: a law requiring workers to work less.

[The Japanese government hopes that] a cap on overtime could alter Japan’s work culture, bring new people — particularly women — into the workplace, and solve the country’s labor shortage.

You can listen to the episode below (if my efforts to embed an audio player worked):

Or you can read the transcript.

As I’ve written before, number of Japanese companies have been experimenting with different kinds of 4-day weeks: some big employers like 7-Eleven and Uniqlo offer workers the option of doing four 10-hour days per week, in an effort to give workers longer stretches of unbroken free time. Japanese e-commerce company Zozo is actually the world’s biggest company running on a 30-hour week.

“Japanese companies are beginning to embrace… the idea of a four-day workweek”

The Japan Times has an article about “Japanese companies warming up — slowly — to four-day workweek:”

Once synonymous with long work hours, Japanese companies are beginning to embrace — or at least consider — the idea of a four-day workweek.

Although the concept is nothing new and the number of companies adopting the system fluctuates, it is increasing over the long term.

As of 2018, according to a labor ministry survey, 6.9 percent of privately held companies with 30 or more full-time employees had introduced the system in some form. A decade ago, the figure was 3.1 percent.

As I’ve noted earlier, Japan has some of the biggest companies in the world that are currently operating on a shortened workweek: Zozo adopted what it calls the “Rokujiro” 30-hour workweek in 2012. This article is more about companies adopting four 10-hour days, but still, it’s another straw in the wind.

Greetings from Seoul, where I’m researching four-day weeks in Asian companies

I’m in Seoul for the next several days, doing some publicity stuff for REST (my dad tells me that the translation is really top-notch), and also doing some interviews and fieldwork for my next book on four-day weeks.

One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions of the four-day week is that most of the discussion centers around companies in Europe, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand (whoever Perpetual Guardian hired to do their PR, they really delivered value for money!). Likewise, the policy discussions mainly cite European trade unions and talking heads.

One of the things I’ve found in my research, though, is that some of the biggest companies shortening their workdays and workweeks are in Japan and Korea. In Japan, I’ve found big tech companies doing 30-hour weeks, little ryokans (traditional inns) operating on a 4-day week schedule, and a big manufacturing company that switches to 4-day weeks during the summer.

Likewise in Korea, there are a whole host of hip tech startups, cosmetics companies, and publishers that have shortened their working hours. (Tech and cosmetics are big industries in Korea, and people still read a lot here.)

Coming over here to see how they do it feels important, for a couple reasons.

First, I really think I’m tracking a global movement that is in its infancy, doesn’t really have a strong collective sense of itself, but in the next few years could become a really serious thing. And because of the size and number of companies, you can’t study this without studying Japan and Korea. The world’s biggest company that does 30-hour weeks is in Japan, and some of the most successful startups working shorter hours are in Korea. Talking about European companies is a good start, but it’s not the end.

Second, for American audiences, when you talk about companies in Sweden and Netherlands, this is what they imagine:

When nations that have powerful unions, strong social welfare, and a words for “cozy evenings by the fire wearing hand-knit socks” opt for working less, it’s both totally unsurprising, and remote. It’s hard for American companies to imagine following the Nordic model in… just about anything. However, when you talk about it being done by companies that are in countries whose languages have words for “working yourself to death,” those same audiences are more likely to sit up and take notice.

Third, while of course there are some serious differences in corporate and national cultures, Japanese and Korean companies are adopting shorter workweeks for pretty much the same reasons that their counterparts in London and Copenhagen are; they do the same things to make them work; and they see the same benefits. So I can make the case that shortening the workweek, for all its variations by nation and industry, follows some underlying rules no matter where you are. (Rules that, needless to say, I’ll lay out in my book!)

Finally, because of geographical and cultural proximity, China is more likely to learn from the Korean and Japanese companies than from companies in the West. There’s already some discussion in China of aiming for a 4-day week by 2030; and if they do, that’ll be a titanic move in the global economy, not to mention a huge change in the lives of a billion-plus people.

So that’s why I’m here. To get this part of the story. Of course, I’m also here for the street food!

Japanese edition of REST

My copies of the Japanese edition of REST arrived today.

The Japanese edition of REST.

It’s always really cool to see the foreign editions, and to imagine the book being read by people I’ll never meet, in places I’ll never visit. It’s not a kind of immortality, nor is it really influence; it’s more like the satisfaction of seeing a child do well in the world, and exercising strengths that you might have helped them develop, but which they wield.

And of course I hope the book does well– more than many places, Japan needs to appreciate the value of rest, and to have corporate policies that encourage deliberate rest!

Cover of Japanese edition of REST

The Japanese edition of REST will be out pretty soon (next Friday, I think), and the publisher sent me the cover and bookband.

REST Japanese edition cover and bookband

I don’t know why bookbands are such a thing in Japan, nor why there’s a cat on mine, but I like it.

“Rest condemns neither hard work nor perfectionism, but rather celebrates both”

Scenes from Tokyo

The Japanese edition of REST will be out in a few weeks, and I’ve started thinking about pieces that I could pitch to magazines and newspapers.

But it turns out that Joji Sakurai beat me to it in the New Statesman: Continue reading

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