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Work Less. Do More: The Secret to Employee Productivity

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Microsoft has long been known for its innovative approach to business. So when they wanted to find a way to increase employee productivity, they dipped into their innovative strategy toolbox and designed a bold experiment they called the “Work-Life Choice Challenge.”

For the month of August 2019, Microsoft’s Japan office closed every Friday for its 2,300 employees. Then they compared their business numbers to the previous August. Employee productivity jumped by an incredible 40%. Closing the office one day a week also reduced office expenditures like electricity (23% lower) and supplies (59% less paper usage).

Since Microsoft released their results, companies around the world have taken note. As employee engagement has plateaued near 34%, leaders need to take a new approach to employee productivity tracking. Changing how, and when, we work, should be considered a viable strategy to increase employee productivity.

The Case for a 4-Day Workweek: Why It Works

In theory, five eight-hour days might seem fine—it’s how people have been working for over a century. In 1908, a New England mill went from a six-day to a five-day workweek to allow Jewish employees to observe the Sabbath.

On May 1, 1926, Henry Ford popularized the concept of a two-day weekend when he declared a five-day, 40-hour workweek for his automobile factory employees. As Labor Unions caught onto the idea, they fought for a provision in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that capped work at 40 hours a week. Thus the five-day workweek became the norm across the country.

But over the past century, work has slowly encroached into people’s personal lives. 40% of employees say they work more than 50 hours a week, and 18% say they work 60 hours or more. Days are packed full of meetings, travel, multitasking, and emails. Not to mention after-hours work thanks to technology that blurs the lines between home and office. And it’s wreaking havoc on the workforce.

  • Nearly a quarter of employees are completely burned out at work.
  • Another 44% say they feel burned out at least some of the time.
  • 70% of workers are stressed from a lack of work-life balance.
  • Only 34% of employees are truly engaged at work.
  • Workers have only three focused, productive hours at work a day.

The numbers are clear—people are overworked and disconnected from their jobs. This Industrial Revolution work schedule fit people’s lives a century ago. But the way people work has changed, and what they want from an employer and their career has evolved.

Pro tip: Take a page from Microsoft’s book and give your workers a day off every week for a month and measure your results.

This might be the perfect time to put the plan into action. As more work becomes automated through AI and robotics, humans have more defined roles in many industries without the distracting, repetitive work. For example, payroll and scheduling can now be automated, leaving HR to focus on tasks with higher ROI, like talent recruiting and retention.

Microsoft wasn’t the only company to test out a shorter workweek. Perpetual Guardian is an estate planning company with offices throughout New Zealand. In 2018, the company’s founder, Andrew Barnes, decided to try a new approach to the workweek. Perpetual Guardian’s 240 employees worked 32 hours instead of 40, but kept their salaries the same. The result? Let’s just say Barnes made the two-month test run into a permanent policy.

How does working less yield greater productivity?

  • People will work harder for a company that takes care of them.
  • Workers perform better when they take a 15-minute-break after every hour of focused work. One day off a week is a break on a bigger scale that boosts overall productivity.
  • People become more task-oriented than time-oriented with a condensed schedule. They prioritize tasks that have greater ROI.

Takuya Hirano, CEO of Microsoft Japan, said on their website,

“I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results with 20% less working time.”

The five-day workweek is so ingrained in work culture that it’s going to require many more CEOs like Hirano and Barnes to turn the tide. But it might just be employees who start the revolution.

Millennials make up nearly 50% of today’s US workforce and are expected to grow to 75% of the global workforce. Generation Z, born in 1995 and beyond, is close behind as they begin entering the workforce in droves. These majority workforce shareholders prioritize work-life balance over salary. And they have the numbers behind them to make this change.

A Digital Approach for the Frontline Workforce

Modifying the 9-to-5 routine is a great solution for many organizations. But work is not one-size-fits-all. 80% of the global workforce is made up of frontline employees—hourly workers who have shifting schedules week to week. This workforce is paid by the hour rather than an annual salary. Reducing their hours is not a viable way to increase productivity for this population.

Frontline employees make up over two billion workers in industries like manufacturing, retail, and hospitality.

Many of them have even lower work satisfaction statistics than their desk-based counterparts:

  • Only 13% of frontline workers feel engaged at work.
  • They have the highest turnover rates in their respective industries.
  • They feel disconnected from jobs with little communication from management.
  • 64% of workers feel that meetings disrupt their workflow.

In short, frontline employees are disconnected from one another, their managers, and the company. Their workflows are disjointed and disrupted.

So, what do frontline workers want in their jobs? The same things that desk-based workers want.

  • More control to create schedules that work with their lives
  • Greater autonomy in their roles
  • Recognition
  • Better communication with their managers
  • Opportunities for advancement at work

Closing the gap between where they’re at and where they want to be can’t be fixed with cutting hours. But the same results can be achieved with a different strategy—a workforce app that every employee downloads onto their smartphone.

Watch How Wireless Vision Created a Happier Workforce with Beekeeper.

This mobile-first internal communications strategy can address the top issues that are weighing down engagement, morale, retention, and overall job satisfaction in the frontline workforce. Companies should look for software with features like secure text and voice messaging, translation capabilities, chatbots, surveys, and scheduling. A strong internal communication platform breaks down information silos to create a transparent workplace.

It also equalizes communication through bottom-up, top-down, and peer-to-peer communication.

Beekeeper's communication pyramid

Pro tip: The first feature you should use with a new employee app is the pulse survey—establish the baseline of your frontline workforce’s engagement.

An employee app propels productivity through:

  • Peer-to-peer communication creates workplace connections which boosts productivity 20%.
  • Establishing a platform for managers to give regular feedback to their employees, which can reduce employee burnout by 70%.
  • Reduces isolation for mobile, dispersed workers.
  • Aligning frontline employees to corporate values and mission.
  • Streamlining communication in real-time so employees get information they need to do their job.
  • Scheduling features that allow employees to have greater control over their shifts and hours for work-life balance.
  • Eliminating the need for meetings. Instead use video, chats, direct messages, group chats, or file sharing.

Companies are most successful when everyone is included in communication. Not only does productivity increase, but retention, engagement, morale, and profits go up, too. Companies can track employee productivity statistics through their digital workplace’s analytics dashboard to watch the numbers rise.

What will it take to get leaders to buy into a shorter workweek and new technology to increase productivity? A change in behavior, understanding the benefits for their employees and their bottom line, and the next Henry Ford to champion the idea.

Download our free eBook to learn how to crack the code to improving the employee experience and boosting productivity.