People have toyed with the idea of a 4-day workweek for over 80 years. Here’s how the concept has evolved, from the Great Depression to Microsoft’s latest successful experiment.

Microsoft recently tried out a four-day workweek in Japan.

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Microsoft recently tried out a four-day workweek in Japan.
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Getty Images

  • Microsoft recently implemented a four-day workweek at a subsidiary in Japan, leading to a 40% productivity increase.
  • A four-day workweek can either mean that employees work a traditional 40 hour week over four days, or that they work four typical eight-hour days totalling 32 hours per week.
  • A 30 hour workweek was popular in the early 20th century, but support dropped off following the Great Depression. Now, some companies are experimenting with the idea again.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A 40-hour, five-day workweek from Monday to Friday has been considered the standard schedule in the US since at least the Great Depression, even though almost a third of US workers today don’t work that way.

Throughout the 20th century, scholars and activists predicted a decrease in hours the average worker would be on the clock as productivity increased. In 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek within a century. In 1965, a Senate subcommittee predicted an even shorter 14-hour workweek by 2000, with seven weeks of vacation.

Some high-profile tech executives, like Google cofounder Larry Page, have praised the premise of a four-day workweek, and studies have shown that it could have benefits like decreasing burnout and lessening gender inequality.

However, a four-day workweek has yet to take hold on a large scale.

Microsoft is the most recent example of a company experimenting with the idea. The Seattle-based tech giant recently implemented a four-day workweek in Japan, which led to a 40% jump in productivity. The company closed the office on Fridays in August and limited meetings, which made employees more productive than the previous August, despite working fewer hours.

Here’s a history of how the four-day workweek began.


In the 1920s and 1930s, entrepreneurs like Henry Ford found that decreasing workweeks from 60-plus hours to 40 could actually increase productivity, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant.

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Getty Images

Source: Quartz


In 1933, Congress nearly passed a 30-hour workweek bill to cut hours as an alternative to unemployment during the Depression, but it failed as opponents called it “communist.”

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Bettmann/Getty Images

Source: AlterNet


Other New Deal legislation was a way to keep 30-hour workweek activists happy, like the Works Progress Administration, and the Federal Labor Standards Act, which mandated overtime pay past 40 hours.

Source: Eh.net


After the Depression ended, hours increased and averages hovered around 40 hours, according to Wake Forest economics professor Robert Whaples. The movement for shorter hours dwindled.

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Three Lions/Getty Images

Source: eh.net


Kellogg’s was a notable exception, and workers voted in favor of a six-hour workday in 1946. But the company slowly moved toward an eight-hour day, and in 1985, the last department shifted to those hours.

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Amanda McKelvey

Source: The Week


Second- and third-wave feminism in the later half of the 20th century emphasized giving women access to paid work, and pressuring men to contribute more to unpaid domestic labor, rather than cutting overall paid working hours.

Source: Business Insider


Some environmentalists have suggested that working less could be useful to curbing climate change, as workers consume fewer resources during their commutes. In Microsoft’s case, electricity use went down nearly 25%.

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Reuters

Source: Business Insider, Business Insider


In the 21st century, rethinking the 9-to-5, Monday to Friday workday is popular as tech companies seek to disrupt all aspects of life.

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Skye Gould/Business Insider

Many organizations moved to this schedule to cut costs. Between 2008 and 2011, the Utah state government worked four 10-hour days per week.

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Shutterstock/aceshot1

Source: Governing


In 2018, New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian was so happy with results of a four-day workweek that it made the experiment permanent.

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REUTERS/Henning Gloystein

Source: The New York Times


According to a 2019 study, 40% of US workers would prefer a four-day week, and a development firm that analyzes these results says workers only get four hours of work done per day.

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Thomson Reuters

Source: USA Today


ZipRecruiter postings mentioning four-day weeks are reportedly up 67% this year, and have increased in similar numbers the past few years as companies compete to attract top hires.

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Facebook/ZipRecruiter

Source: USA Today


The US remains an outlier compared to other countries. The average US worker works about 1,780 hours per year, compared to about 1,300 hours in Germany.

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People’s Policy Project

Source: People’s Policy Project


While some employers are toying with the idea of a shorter workweek, people are generally working longer hours and available for work outside the office. As the Wall Street Journal said “the phrase ‘nine to five’ is becoming an anachronism.”

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10’000 Hours/Getty Images

Source: The Wall Street Journal


With Microsoft’s results getting plenty of attention, maybe more companies will follow its lead.

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Chesnot/Getty Images