Japan, known for its rigid work culture, is entertaining changes to the standard workweek few would have predicted even several years ago.
The country’s annual economic policy guidelines, released this month, unveiled plans to push employers to adopt four-day workweeks, marking official acceptance of a once-fringe approach that has gained increasing purchase internationally amid workplace changes wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The recommendation that companies adopt an optional shorter workweek is meant to support employees who want to further their education, take care of family members or simply to go out, spend money and even meet others, as Japan’s population ages and shrinks.
In proposing four-day weeks, Japan joined Spain, which is launching a three-year, nationwide, voluntary 32-hour week experiment, and several other countries have been mulling the prospect.
New Zealand’s and Finland’s prime ministers have floated the idea of a four-day workweek. The U.K. Labour Party in 2019 campaigned on the idea that workweeks would be shortened in the next decade.
A number of employers have also begun to move in that direction. On Tuesday, Kickstarter announced it would reduce employees’ hours without reducing pay next year, reported the Atlantic.
Microsoft in Japan instituted a temporary three-day weekend in August 2019 – which resulted in a reported 40 percent increase in productivity, according to the company, and reduced electricity consumption and paper printing.
“A five-day workweek was never a given,” Robert Bird, a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut, told The Washington Post, adding that unions fought hard to scrap the six-day workweek norm in the early 1900s. “A five-day workweek was never something that was unchangeable or immutable.”
A four-day workweek movement made headway in the 1970s, and some believed its adoption was inevitable before momentum dissipated.
But five decades later, in the face of a labor shortage, a massive bout of quitting, as well as more than a year of work-from-home and increased flexibility for many workers, Bird, like other experts around the world, said he thought there is a chance for the idea to stick.
“Younger people are demanding more out of their work environment than just a paycheck,” he said. “They want to work with someone who believes in their values – and the expression of a four-day workweek sends a signal that the company cares about work-life balance in a significant and meaningful way.”
Japan’s strong private-public coordination and group-focused culture makes the top-down proposal more likely to succeed, he said. But it is a different story in the United States, where such a change would be unlikely unless workers “speak and use their bargaining power.”
Peter Cheese, who heads the British government’s Flexible Working Task Force, called the pandemic a “generational opportunity” to institutionalize more flexible work, reported Politico.
The idea of a four-day workweek “is really rising in prominence, momentum and popularity not just in the U.K. but all across the world right now as we’re opening our eyes to a better future of work – and that’s in everybody’s interest,” Joe Ryle, an officer for the U. K.-based 4 Day Week Campaign, told The Post.
Most countries, including Japan, however, are still some way off from so drastic a change. Many Japanese employers are concerned that productivity would lag, and many workers fear pay cuts, the Japan Times reported.