As part of its experimental “Work-Life Choice Challenge,” Microsoft Japan closed its offices every Friday of August 2019, but still paid their employees for a five-day work week, and reported a nearly 40% jump in productivity. Additionally, the company found that the policy helped cut down on electricity usage and preserved a significant number of office resources such as printer paper and drinking water. What should other employers learn from this experiment? Given these results, do you think that a four-day workweek should be implemented on a larger scale?

Prof. Joel Gershenfeld (Heller)

Recent news from Microsoft in Japan claims a 40% increase in productivity when people were working four days a week, while being paid for five. This sounds like great news for workers everywhere, but it is unlikely to herald a global shift in working hours for at least three reasons. First, we don’t know how productivity is being measured, so it is hard to verify the results. Second, the gains may be short term – what are called “Hawthorne Effects” from an experiment in the 1950s where there were productivity gains just from people knowing they were part of an experiment (and one they wanted to continue). Third, even if the measurement is valid and sustainable, it won’t necessarily apply to all types of jobs – such as service work and machine-paced work. Still, the work pace in Japan has historically been intense among salaried workers and there may be real gains in work life balance signaled by the experiment that are worth further experimentation. So, employees and employers should be cautious about the news, but be bold in further experiments!

Joel Gershenfeld is a professor at the Heller School specializing in large-scale systems change, high performance work systems, negotiation and dispute resolution, cyberinfrastructure and labor-management relations.

Prof. Daniel Bergstresser (IBS)

I would be skeptical here for a number of reasons.  First off, their measure of productivity is sales in August of this year versus August of the previous year. It is notoriously easy for companies to shift revenue from one month to an adjacent month, and a forty-percent increase in revenue stands out to me as being large enough that one would be wise to look for signs that revenue has been shifted across adjacent months. It also does not sound here like Microsoft ran anything close to a clinical trial, where you might observe effects in treatment and control groups. So please treat this story with some caution.

Daniel Bergstresser is an associate professor of Finance at the Brandeis International Business School and the chair of the Undergraduate Business Program.

Prof. Rajesh Sampath (Heller)

The high tech sector, particularly in the age of software, the Internet and social media, has not just innovated new technologies for human consumption but also altered traditional notions of life-style, work-life balance, and the nature of work itself in offices and virtual, remote teams.  May be they are onto something. The early writings of Marx reveal a keen insight that for animals, there is no partition of life, labor, and being into a set ‘work-day,’ private recreational time, vacations, etc. They do not externalize their labor as an object of the consciousness, which then alienates them from their true essence. Whether you believe humans are just higher-order animals or fundamentally distinct in our nature in about ability to transform our natures and relationship to our natural environments is not the issue. We still have to admit that the age of industrialized capitalism is less than two hundred years old, with the exception of England and the colonies of New England; and that modern urban life in many industrialized cities has led to a 24/7 work scheme, including trade-offs due to commute time and meeting basic needs in a fast-paced world of every increasing pollution and carbon-emissions. Our natures have already been distorted. The Japanese office of Microsoft may have a visionary alternative that can increase our productivity, give us time to embrace our creative natures, and help reverse climate change. With the third largest GDP in the world behind U.S. and China, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here: we human beings have the creative potential to alter our existing assumptions about life and work while still releasing the enormous potential of technology and capitalist growth. Do we have the courage to change? I think so.

Rajesh Sampath is an associate professor of the Philosophy of Justice, Rights, and Social Change at the Heller School.