This year, the UAE became the first country in the world to implement a 4.5 working week, decidedly shorter than the global average of five days. This astute shift promises to deliver a number of economic benefits and opportunities, as the country harmonises its working hours with global markets. At the same time, the shorter workweek will enable employees to devote precious time for family life, friends, education, health care, community, or recreational activities.
Governments have an essential role to play in formulating employment policies that are flexible enough for workers to successfully combine work, family commitments, and a breadth of activities that are of importance in their lives. For instance, flexible working arrangements can enable employees to care for vulnerable family members or young children, pursue higher education, start up a small business on the side, freelance, self-manage chronic illnesses, enjoy hobbies, exercise, and savour unforgettable vacations.
Currently, global labour markets are facing an exodus of qualified and experienced employees due to the lack of such flexible working arrangements that prevent them from performing other important activities in their personal time. For instance, many employees are faced with paralysing choices between work commitments and family care duties due to inflexible working conditions, costly care services, or the lack of day care centers for their dependents. On top of that, longer hours have been linked to high chronic stress levels, burnout, depression, social ostracization, and health problems.
As a matter of fact, an abundance of research is extolling the positive impacts of flexible working arrangements on both economic prosperity and population well-being. Reported benefits include attracting and retaining high-performing and experienced staff, lowering absenteeism rates, improving work-life balance, increasing job satisfaction, elevating energy and creativity levels, reducing stress levels, decreasing office-related costs, and generating positive effects on the environment.
In spite of this evidence, the idea of shorter workweeks is yet to gain traction due to the presumption that economic and productivity gains might take a hit. However, an interesting evaluation on OECD data reveal that some countries have achieved an optimal level of productivity with shorter working hours and GDP per hour worked than their peers, such as Germany, France, and Denmark. This is due, in part, to technological progress in those economies.
To accelerate productivity levels in tandem with shorter workweeks, many governments have invested in digital solutions in various industries, carving out new road maps on the role of employees. To illustrate, employees no longer need to be physically present in offices or service centers thanks to a suite of cost-effective and user-friendly digital productivity tools. Current digital solutions cover remote work, project management tools, time management apps, online collaboration tools, automation, and artificial intelligence. The Covid-19 pandemic has further accelerated the adoption of digital solutions, together with flexible working conditions, and revealing fantastic productivity gains, cost savings, and elevated employee well-being in some organisations.
In the past few years, many forward-thinking governments and companies have made considerable progress towards shaping more inclusive, flexible, and equity-centred working environments. A number of options are available within the framework of flexible working arrangements, such as reduced hours, flex time, compressed workweek, part-time jobs, remote work, and leaves granted for various purposes.
For example, the national government of Iceland and Reykjavík City Council piloted the effectiveness of shorter work weeks, between 2015 and 2019, by allowing participants to shift from a 40-hour week to a 35 or 36-hour week. Results have indeed delivered the expected positive impacts on productivity and well-being, with around 86 per cent of employees now working shorter hours without taking a cut to their pay.
In a similar fashion, Japan’s Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy recently posted recommendations to enterprises to encourage them to shift to four-day workweeks, citing many expected benefits, such as retaining experienced staff, allowing employees to care for their children or elderly relatives, making time for family or socialising, and tackling the country’s falling birth rates. Last year, the Spanish government launched a €50 million pilot project to evaluate the impact of a 32-hour workweek on companies over three years.
Many private sector enterprises are also experimenting with flexible and shorter workweeks. For example, Microsoft Japan launched the ‘Work-Life Choice Challenge 2019 Summer’, which saw its offices closing every Friday in August 2019 and giving its 2,300 employees an extra day off each week. The results concluded that not only were workers more content, but the company saw a 40% gain in productivity (measured by sales per employee), electricity costs fell by 23%, and employees took lesser days off. A post-trial survey indicated that 92% of Microsoft’s employees support the shift to a four-day workweek. In another example, the multinational consumer goods company Unilever is currently experimenting with a four-day working week in its New Zealand office. Expanding the policy to the rest of its global staff of 149,000 will hinge on the results of the trial after 12 months.
With a suite of technological advances in the realm of productivity and the abundance of research reinforcing work-life balance, the world of work should progress towards embracing a shorter working week. Implementing a variety of flexible working policies promises to nurture and support a labour market that is healthier, happier, and more productive.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature