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How far off is the Middle East in adopting the four-day work week?

While several models of the four-day work week have taken root across the region, it is important to ask if employees are given leeway to work flexibly.

How far off is the Middle East in adopting the four-day work week?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Did you know that the earliest documented experiment of the four-day work week dates back eight decades? The first recorded evidence of early adopters of this work model was the Mobil and Gulf Oil Companies’ who instituted it for their truck drivers in 1940. Following this, a few firms experimented in the 60s, and by the early 70s, many others were jumping on the bandwagon, with an overall adoption rate of 60-70% per month. Clearly, a four-day work week and its correlation with higher productivity levels gained credence years ago. 

And history, rife with lessons for the present and the future, points to something more interesting. The concept of a four-day work week emerged in a climate very similar to today’s, wherein there was an increase in oil prices sparked by a mass embargo led by the Arab members of OPEC. Oil prices sparked concerns about commuting and wages similar to what many are experiencing today.

The past often allows us to ask new questions relevant to the Middle East, which is considering a four-day work week. However, we must avoid a reductionist perspective before getting into the pros and cons of a possible work model with a longer weekend. 

Most of us could list a four-day work week’s pros. Who doesn’t prefer a longer weekend? Several initial studies reported a lot of positives for four days of work and its impact on productivity in the business and the wellbeing of its workers.

Corporates that migrated to the four-day work week in the Gulf countries boosted employees’ morale, increased motivation, and improved productivity. Yet, many past researchers have admitted that studies regarding the four-day week may be riddled with the Hawthorne effect. Once the system gains popularity, the novelty wears off, appreciation reduces, and the findings of the studies may change, experts say. 

Yet, it is worth considering the mass adoption of a shorter week in the Middle East, which has had countries such as the UAE experiment with the working model two times over. 

ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL 

If the history of the four-day week can teach us a lesson, it must be to stay far from generalizations. And that one size does not fit all. 

“The four-day week model may not suit every organization in the Middle East. It needs a fair amount of thought and realignment of processes, systems, and mindsets,” says Clarise Morris, associate CIPD manager of Human Resources – MEA & APAC, Leviton Middle East. 

A discussion about productivity cannot happen without one on mental health.Dr Ayat Mekki, a Dubai-based master coach, advanced theta healing practitioner, and licensed neuro-linguistic programming trainer, says, “A company that gives its employees a three-day weekend implies more care about its employees’ mental and physical well-being, and that company is going to earn the loyalty and trust of its employees in return.”

“Today, more than ever before, employees are looking for flexibility and more freedom. The more flexibility a company provides, the greater the quality of its employees’ work,” says Dr Mekki.

CLOCK IN LESSER TO REMAIN HAPPIER?

Perhaps the biggest experiment currently in the UAE is the shift to the new weekend, which pivoted from a customary Friday-Saturday to a Saturday-Sunday to align with international work schedules. 

Dr Mekki says many of her corporate clients and friends are still adjusting to the weekend change, nearly six months after its implementation. “Many struggle to work on Fridays,” explaining that “this demeanor about working on Fridays will inadvertently lessen the quality and productivity of employees.”

Citing an example of Virgin, wherein employees are guaranteed unlimited leaves and a three-day work week, Dr Mekki assures freedom pays employers big time.

“This type of flexibility makes for happier, more productive, more engaged, and more efficient employees,” she adds.

THE BIGGEST WINS 

The actual implementation of a four-day work week across every level of governance and society and public and private sectors would mean much more free time. But there are issues to address. 

With rich experience in HR, Morris explains the benefits of more time on hand, which would alleviate the quality time, health and well-being, retention rates, and even overall environmental impact for many regional organizations.

Among the positives of a new system, the biggest win would be for women, she assures, “A four-day work week is a possible solution to time-squeeze – a widespread concern in dual-earner families. A section of individuals who will benefit from this is women, who choose to or are forced to stay away from employment or better career opportunities due to childcare or family responsibilities. We are looking at an equal opportunity workplace, where men and women will equally be able to juggle their family and work commitments.” 

From a recruitment and retention perspective, offering a more flexible work culture goes a long way in attracting and persuading employees to stay at a company. “This work-life balance benefit is probably still relatively rare, but research shows higher productivity and a better-engaged workforce,” says Morris.

Going beyond the short-term advantages, businesses, in the long run, would benefit from improved productivity, meaning more sales and more profits, and lesser operating costs. “Engaged employees, improved employee retention, and a broader talent pool to source from are some of the bigger paybacks. Rested, stress-free, and refueled employees contribute to an increase in the intellectual capital of an organization,” explains Morris.

With the ongoing dialogue on climate change and sustainability, “It is worth doing the maths on the reduction in carbon emissions from a single day of closed offices and its employees not driving into work,” she adds.

NO CONCLUSIONS DRAWN

Despite its potential advantages, the four-day work week, which is one of the probable one-stop solutions to unproductivity, has drawbacks. Lesser days of work imply a higher number of hours clocked in.

“An increase in productivity is expected with the increase in the number of rest days. However, studies have shown that productivity decreases as the number of hours worked increases. A ten-hour work day instead of the eight-hour workday could prove to be taxing for some employees,” Morris says.

While several models of the four-day work week have taken root across the Middle East, is it worth considering whether firms automatically expect increased productivity in exchange for an extra day off? Do employees get leeway to work flexibly? Would a shorter week imply employees working overtime to meet deadlines? If an organization has an extra day off as optional, would that widen the gender gap, given that most women who are mothers would opt for it owing to their other commitments outside of the workplace? 

Hence, the real success of a shorter work week cannot be measured by “happiness” or “productivity” as a single parameter but by how enterprises enable employees to be flexible. And before the concept of a three-day work week starts to kindle, we must reflect on how much “work” can take place in a day. There are only 24 hours in a day, so a good place for employers to start is to offer shorter working hours before jumping on the bandwagon of an additional day off. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Clare McGrath Dawson is a Correspondent at Fast Company Middle East who writes on tech, design, and culture. More

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