Re-imagining the workplace: prioritising for productivity

Who doesn’t want a four day week with less meetings? Previously, the only answer was your boss. That might change, as the results of an experiment Microsoft conducted are analysed. The corporate shut its office in Japan every Friday for the month of August, and limited meetings to a maximum of 30 minutes, encouraging digital participation via its Teams App, with a focus on inviting – and requiring – less people to attend. Microsoft’s simple measures run counter-intuitive to how the traditional workplace operates, yet they delivered an extraordinary 40% upside in productivity – and won a 94% employee satisfaction rate among employees.

This raises three key points:

  1. How did employees achieve increased productivity? Did they simply work harder in reciprocation for the benefit of an extra day off – or did they find ways of working smarter?

Offices and schools are based around the Industrial Revolution’s 18th Century factory template. In many cultures, but particularly within the US and parts of Asia, the charade of ‘facetime’ – staying at your desk until an implicitly agreed home time – is ingrained within the workplace. Bosses expect workers to stick it out until ‘Levi’s’ 5.01pm before going home. Can Microsoft’s limited case study create a tipping point – or at least a conversation – around managing and measuring work through productivity rather than hours spent at a desk? The best firms understand their top talent is intrinsically motivated, and find meaning through work. Your best people are like FedEx – they always deliver, regardless of the conditions they work under. So why impose artificial – even counterproductive – constraints?

  1. Does shortening meetings, tightening invitation lists and removing mandatory physical presence at meetings boost productivity?

Crick and Watson announced the existence of DNA and its double helix structure via the radio over five minutes. If DNA and the double helix can be explained to the general public in this amount of time, why does your meeting warrant more than 30 minutes? It isn’t clear how much reducing days in the office versus the reduction in meetings boosted productivity, but it’s safe to assume drastically reducing the number of meetings employees have to attend, the length they are expected to sit through them, and the requirement to be physically present all contributed to increased productivity. Many of the most innovative leaders today have a default ‘no’ position to meetings – the opposite of corporate culture, where meetings are in some sense social, an invite is expected to be accepted, and physical – rather than mental presence is required. Could you manage your diary more effectively if empowered to do so?

  1. How much did employees engage remotely with their work to remain productive?

Microsoft’s Japanese workers did something different to achieve a 40% increase in productivity while taking Friday’s off. How much of their productivity was achieved remotely? A two year Stanford study showed working remotely full time boosted employee productivity by 20%, reduced attrition by 50%, and saved money by requiring less physical office space. Giving employees the option of managing their workload, diary and location seems to boost the bottom line – yet how many corporate cultures allow this type of flexibility as default? 

Prioritising for productivity – and equality?

Does corporate leadership prioritise for productivity and employee well-being? Or does it design for hierarchical structure? 92% of Microsoft’s Japanese employees enjoyed the four day week structure. Given these findings, why do we still adhere to an Industrial Revolution factory set up created in the 1700s, when the work we do, the tools we use, and the reasons we do it have moved on by four iterations? The Stanford study and the Microsoft trial proves re-imagining the workplace isn’t just good for hiring and retaining demanding, tech-orientated, millennial superstars. It’s actually good for the bottom line. Among the 17 stats listed here regarding remote working, perhaps the most topical is its capacity to address one of the most prevalent hurdles to gender equality in the workplace: the flexibility to manage a career and a family. Corporates are increasingly focused on achieving equality: starting with individual preferences and needs is a good idea. 

Would your life benefit from location flexibility? Do you find you are more productive running your own schedule than working to someone else’s? What’s your experience with remote working? 

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