The four day work week and Parkinson’s Law

By Mike Cook for the BBJ

Earlier this month an article appeared in Business Insider that caught my attention; Microsoft had announced an experiment with a four-day workweek in one of its subsidiaries in Japan that resulted in a 40% increase in productivity, a reduction in copies made of nearly 60% and a 23% reduction in electricity consumption. Admittedly, this a small sample and a short time measured but the results have far reaching implications.

Americans spend much more time at work than their counterparts in other countries. Japan and Germany for example spend as much as 28% less time at work than we do here in the US. An outcome such as the one achieved in the Microsoft experiment offers an opportunity for a much broader conversation about priorities, efficiencies, employee engagement and much more.


Have you heard of Parkinson’s Law?Parkinson’s Law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. I introduce this adage into the conversation at this point because I believe it is pertinent to any serious consideration of reducing the time we spend at work. In the 1970’s when I entered the professional work-force I was employed by one of the larger petroleum companies in the United States. Within a few weeks of joining the company I was faced with a startling realization; among those of us engaged in administrative work there were probably three times as many employees as needed to get the actual work done. It was a different time of course, before the pressures of the global economy, a time that seemingly did not require the efficiencies that are a must in order to stay competitive in today’s economic conditions. Those times may well be behind us yet despite the purges of the 1980’s our efficiencies can still be called into question. A case in point is of course the experience reported by Microsoft in the articleMicrosoft experimented with a 4-day workweek, and productivity jumped by 40%’. One would be inclined to think that with all the technology, the LEAN work, the Six Sigma technology and so forth we would at this point be at our leanest and meanest. That conclusion might hold if in fact everything that takes place in our places of work was actually WORK in the sense of causing something to occur that added to the bottom line of our businesses. Unfortunately, we are trapped in a mind set that suggests that time and value added have a one to one, or nearly so, relationship. Not so. Unless being open seven days, six days or five days a week is strategic to your business you are scheduling yourself and your employees out of habit or ritual, not productivity.


Before spinning off into a tizzy about how your business needs people to be “at work” 40 and maybe more hours each week I invite you to try an experiment. The purpose of the experiment is to provide you an occasion to witness how bound you are by your beliefs about how value is added in your workplace. Let’s say that there are indeed times when people need to be available, say customer service employees. Or that your business is time bound to be open a certain number of hours and those hours are a critical component of your value proposition. OK, setting aside these instances take a look at everything else that goes on in your business.


My premise is that if you stick with the experiment you will find that the amount of time you, especially you as a business owner, need to spend at or around your business is far less than you either imagine or in fact practice.


Here’s a question for you; what are you doing for the business, in terms of adding value that is uniquely yours to contribute. Take a sheet of paper and split it down the middle. Title two columns 1) My unique contribution, how much time does it take and 2) What I also do, how much time does it take. After your make these two lists ask yourself who in the business currently could perform the functions in Column 2 and consider delegating or assigning those functions. After you are done with this, look at what is left to be assigned in Column 2. How much time would be required for you to continue those functions, if they are worthy of your time? At this point you should begin to see that you have been holding on to a number of tasks a) because you don’t trust anyone else to do them b) you like doing them and are concerned that if you give them away you’ll look like you are not earning your keep c) you cannot imagine what you’d do without these tasks to keep you occupied, d) a combination of all of these.


Now for the test, delegate most of the items in column 2 and begin to structure your work week around only these things that have primarily to do with your unique contribution. See if you can only be working when you are focused on your unique value. I’ll bet you do not wind up working more than about 20-30 hours per week. Your business can only absorb so much of your unique contribution without creating chaos. Try this for a month, let me know how it goes. You can contact me directly at


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