Four-Day Workweek Hype

It spread across the Internet like wildfire: Microsoft tested a four-day workweek and productivity went up 40%.

Stories that confirm what we’ve always hoped seem to be popular. You know, things like “chocolate is good for you,” or “aaaktually red meat is good.

So, are we on the cusp of the greatest change to labor since the industrial revolution? Or is this a case of bad research getting spread by the media and consumed by the public like a kid left alone with his Halloween candy?

The Study

Let’s move beyond what the journalists have been writing and look at the actual study. Should be easy enough. Most articles link to it. Want to see it? Here it is:

It’s in Japanese. No problem. Google can translate for us. The report contains many charts and images that aren’t as easily translatable, but we can still get the details of the study from the text.

The first important fact is that this experiment lasted one month — August 2019. The five Fridays in August were treated as holidays.

The next obvious question is “what do they mean by a 40% increase in productivity?” How you measure productivity depends on what type of business you’re running.

Turns out that claim isn’t actually in the report. That’s right. There seems to be no evidence that this claim exists in the Microsoft Japan report. The closest thing I could find is a claim that the “30 minute meeting” implementation ratio increased 46%. (Another part of the experiment was to try to limit meetings to 30 minutes. Funny the headlines don’t read Limiting meetings to 30 minutes increases productivity.)

It’s possible that combining the reduction in working hours with an increase in the number of conferences or “networks” (I’m sure something got lost in translation there) you can get a number around 40%, but I can’t find anything that a reasonable person would call a 40% increase in productivity.

This “research” is just a marketing effort to promote “Microsoft Teams” software

That’s right. A big part of this whole experiment was to make heavier use of Microsoft’s collaboration tool Microsoft Teams. Now I wouldn’t go as far as Ralphie and say it’s a crummy ad, but what we have here is a pretty standard marketing effort and press release that took on a life of its own and went viral.

Somebody in Microsoft Japan’s marketing team deserves a raise.

In the meantime, don’t expect your work week to be cut down to four days.

It Looks Like the 40% Claim was Removed

After writing this I was bothered so many news outlets cited the 40% increase in productivity and wondered where they got it. I noticed the Microsoft post says at the bottom it was updated November 7. Turns out that update removed the key line from the findings:

The current (as of 11/7/2019) version of the page does not contain that result.

I have no idea why that result was quietly removed unless somebody realized it was false or misleading. Even if we accept it’s true on its face, the fact that the ratio of sales to employees increased from one year to the next really says nothing about the productivity that a four day workweek brings.

It could be that Microsoft reduced the size of its sales staff in that department, or their products could just be selling better. Bottom line is we don’t really know, and the claim of a productivity boost from a four-day workweek, whether Microsoft’s 39.9% increase statistic is included or not, is totally unfounded.

Educational Psychology Ph.D., business analytics nerd, computer scientist, President @MakeStickers

Educational Psychology Ph.D., business analytics nerd, computer scientist, President @MakeStickers