Tech employees all over the world are complaining of burnt out. Can Microsoft’s four days work week experiment change mindsets?
I’ve always quipped, if you find yourself working long hours all the time, either you are being exploited, or you are unproductive.
China’s tech titans would probably not agree with me. Many developers by now would have heard of China’s ‘996’ culture — a reference to working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
The fallout from Chinese tech employees suffering bad health and personal problems caught the attention of western media throughout 2019 — with the likes of Bloomberg, Forbes, New York Times and the BBC all covering the 996 culture.
Github (the online mecca of coders) even had a top trending campaign on it, resulting in an anti-996 movement to ban companies accused of the culture from using open source code on Github. In a time of intense US-China trade war, this was a strange show of solidarity by western programmers with their Chinese counterparts.
Microsoft breaks ranks
In a somewhat timely twist, news broke out in early November 2019 that Microsoft had conducted a four days work week experiment in its Japan office in August 2019. Offices were closed on Fridays for that entire month.
It resulted in a 40% increase in productivity.
Microsoft also imposed a 30 minutes limit on all meetings and encouraged remote communication. By the end of the month, the experiment also resulted in 23.1% savings on electricity and 58.7% reduction in printing paper.
In reality, Microsoft was just one of many companies and academic studies that found that a shorter work week often led to happier employees and higher productivity.
Is the theory proven then?
Saving on goof time
An Ohio University study found that out of a typical 8-hour work day, the average employee spent almost three hours of it doing frivolous activities like reading news, surfing social media and chatting with colleagues on matters unrelated to work. Interestingly, 26 mins of it were spent looking for new jobs!
This phenomenon isn’t necessarily because workers are lazy. The reality is, many research also showed that the average person can only work productively for up to six hours a day. Beyond that, concentration and productivity starts to fall off. Hence many would try to while away the time since they are obliged to stick around.
I have a wide variety of professionals — almost 28k individuals now — from all over the world in different industries connected to me on my LinkedIn account. Over the past years, I have noticed a substantial number of corporate employees viewing and reading my posts during office hours. (Some companies consistently rank in the top three…so I’m pretty certain their productivity must also be consistently quite low…)
What’s needed to work 6x4?
Before we all rush out to scream for 6-hour days or 4-day weeks, consider this: most of the positive surveys on shorter hours or work days involved office workers.
Indeed, in some professions like nursing, reducing work hours or days definitely leads to happier employees. But it could also result in higher cost for the company if pay remains the same. An experiment in Sweden with retirement home workers confirmed this. The home had to hire more workers to make up for the shorter shift hours.
So businesses that need to operate 24x7 are out unless workers are prepared to take less pay.
From the anecdotes and research that has been done, I would further posit that to introduce shorter or more flexible hours successfully, the following prerequisites should exist:
- An intellect, knowledge or creativity driven role or business
- Physical presence isn’t always needed
- Employees understand their performance goals clearly and are incentivized to deliver
- Employees are not frequently distracted during work hours by colleagues or long meetings
The gaming sweat shops
I love Hasan Minhaj’s ‘Patriot Act’ series on Netflix. In each episode the comedian takes a dig at important issues with well researched materials.
In one episode he exposed the slave driver ways of the gaming industry. Game publishers had gotten into a habit of imposing tight deadlines on their developers, and then firing them if the company doesn’t do well.
This is possible for game publishers because there are no lack of willing young coders hoping to earn a prestigious name on their CV’s; and the glamorous lure of the industry’s big payoffs if a game strikes gold.
The same could be said for many other domains within the tech industry that has the same sort of labor supply dynamics and glam appeal. Tech is also especially susceptible to this ‘chew and spit’ workforce culture due to the intense pace and competition within the industry.
Innovations come hard and fast from all over the world. Barriers of entry for tech startups are low, since the business is mostly driven by intellectual property.
The fight for market share moves rapidly and companies want to develop products and releases asap.
So is there a dilemma here? The practical need for speed vs the exploitation of workers?
Linking productivity with rewards
In startup hubs across the world, young people work long hours to achieve their dreams of rapid growth and building the next big startup name.
Would they complain about long hours? No, they thrive on it!
There’s no contradiction between long hours and worker satisfaction. The link here is productivity vs rewards. Startup founders are willing to work long hours because they are fighting for their own dreams of big payoffs. Given ownership and the rewards associated with it, people who are willing to go after it will work harder.
The converse is also true. If a person values work-life balance more, then he must be prepared to accept lower returns if his productivity does not create the sort of value needed to justify high returns.
So honestly my own take is this: the number of hours spent working isn’t the debate here. It’s about what you want vs how productive you are.
When there is a disconnect between the two, then there is definitely cause to re-examine both yourself and your choice of work.
That said, may I also give everyone out there another piece of advice. A lot of us tend to ignore the “health is wealth” dictum when we were young. I was also guilty.
There is no point becoming successful if you’ve spent your health to acquire the wealth. Success should be enjoyed, not lamented.
Work smart, not hard.