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The UAE’s announcement that from the beginning of 2022 the public work week will be reduced to 4.5 days - with a longer weekend from Friday afternoon through Sunday - means businesses need to think on their feet. While the new work week is only mandated for public sector bodies, in practical terms private enterprises will inevitably have to adapt.

Working with business leaders across the UAE, the initial response we’ve seen has been overwhelmingly positive, backed up by recent statements from Danube Group, Al Maya Group, Eros Group, Select Group, and GEMS Education, among others. The conversations we’ve had suggest the increased alignment with global business norms is welcome, with many owners and directors stating their intention to adapt their own working practices in response.

Many organizations are holding emergency board meetings this month, with the aim of agreeing on their response ahead of the new year. One immediate question being posed is how to strike the right balance between supporting a pioneering local initiative, and moving closer to global standards, while retaining alignment with business partners and customers in other Middle Eastern nations.

While this move will put the UAE out of sync with many of its neighbours, the country has a track-record as an innovator and leader within the region, and we predict it’s likely that other governments will follow their example in time. Of course, the situation is not unprecedented for an Arab nation, with Morocco and Tunisia notable examples of countries operating on a Saturday-Sunday weekend.

A pointer to change all around

Another obvious advantage is an improvement in employee well-being. There are multiple studies that show a shorter workweek is generally good for morale, and a trial four-day week at Microsoft Japan resulted in a 40 per cent increase in productivity and reduced expenses. The move to a shorter work week positions us at the forefront of similar international efforts, with Iceland having trialled a four-day week from 2015-2019 which improved employee wellbeing, and Spain looking to make a similar move next year.

Boards looking to follow the government on this initiative should therefore expect a positive reception from the workforce, although we’d advise introducing flexible working where needed to maintain at least partial alignment with other businesses in the GCC. On a more cautious note, it’s crucial that organizations have the governance structures in place to ensure that any change they make to working practices is properly assessed in terms of risk, operational impact, and its effect on employee work-life balance.

We are confident that although the new working week may present short-term challenges in the boardroom and executive suite, the long-term outlook in terms of global alignment, productivity, and employee well-being looks entirely positive—and cements the UAE’s reputation as a leading light for business in the region.