What Microsoft’s 4-day Trial Workweek Says About the Future of Automation

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Earlier this month, Microsoft Japan released data on its summer four-day workweek trial. The results made waves across industries around the world, prompting businesses to consider whether time really does equal productivity. Spoiler: turns out it doesn’t. Microsoft found that fewer hours in the office resulted in a 40 percent productivity boost and efficiency improvements in areas including 23 percent lower electricity costs and 60 percent fewer printed pages per week.  

The results of the trial reflect a larger shift in how employers increasingly view the relationship between technology-enhanced productivity and employee’s hours. Over the past 50 years, the workweek has remained roughly the same, despite stark gains in productivity. This has coincided with what many economists (and employers) view as a burnout crisis: in 2018, a Gallup study found that 23 percent of full-time employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. While technology has eliminated many of the rote tasks that employees previously performed, companies still depend on motivated and engaged people in the workplace — which is why many have begun experimenting with shorter hours. 

Indeed, Microsoft isn’t the only company that has responded to technology-augmented productivity boosts with shorter hours designed to promote employee motivation. In 2018, Perpetual Guardian made headlines for cutting its workweek to four days after reporting a 20 percent employee productivity gain and a 45 percent employee work-life balance improvement as a result of the shortened workweek. 

Technology-augmented productivity isn’t just good for companies’ bottom lines; it’s also an opportunity for companies to improve the lives of their employees. 

Automation Never Sleeps (So That Employees Can)

AI and automation are fundamentally transforming the ways in which we work. Increasingly, rote tasks — such as updating inventory, answering routine customer inquiries, and filing insurance claims — can be handled by machines. This leaves humans time to do what they are best at: solving complex problems, interpreting data, and engaging in decision-making. This has had two major consequences: the above-mentioned spike in productivity, and a recalibration of how employees provide value to companies. 

Time no longer equals money in today’s automation-driven economy. Now that bots can work round the clock, employees provide the most value not just from sitting in a chair in an office, but from solving issues that bots can’t. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in customer service. Twenty years ago, the industry consisted of pure human labor: massive call centers with round-the-clock staff tirelessly answering what often amounted to the same five questions over and over again. Today, the industry has undergone a radical transformation wherein bots, AI-powered self-service tools, and automated workflows can handle the vast majority of customer service inquiries. Recent data shows that brands across industries can automate more than half of their customer service interactions without negatively affecting customer satisfaction, and that agent productivity goes up significantly with the introduction of bots. 

So what does this mean for human agents? 

Much like Microsoft’s workforce, it means that ensuring that agents are motivated and satisfied in their jobs matters more than ever before. Employees aren’t just clocking in and out; they’re solving problems that can’t be solved without them. Unlike bots, though, employees need work-life balance and time away from the office in order to perform their best. As Microsoft saw, this isn’t purely conjecture: employees are better workers when they are balanced, happy, and motivated. 

As technology continues to alter the workplace, companies will need to recalibrate how they view their workers. In customer service, agents now have the opportunity to work on more interesting, high-level problems – and companies should give them the space they need to do this effectively. 

Take a Page Out of Microsoft’s Book

Giving employees more time off of work isn’t a solution in and of itself to productivity issues. Before Microsoft ever experimented with the workweek, it integrated technology solutions into every area of its business to maximize the benefits of 21st-century technology. Brands that wish to emulate Microsoft’s innovative approach to employee productivity will first need to follow in the tech giant’s footsteps in terms of investing in automation and AI.

Published November 20, 2019
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