What the UK can learn from the UAE's 4.5-day working week

Fewer days at work can boost productivity and wellbeing, with some UK firms already making the switch

Kate Hulley, chief executive of Belmont Packaging in Wigan, England, first introduced a four-day week for some staff in 2019, before rolling it out across the company last September. Photo: Belmont Packaging
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When the UAE switched to a new 4.5-day working week, many British workers could only look on in envy.

Some UK companies, however, have already adopted a shorter working week, including Belmont Packaging near Wigan in north-west England, where staff finish on a Thursday and enjoy a three-day weekend.

The cardboard packaging company first experimented with a shorter working pattern in 2019, compressing its factory floor staff's 38-hour week into four days to make the team more productive, with the rest of the 30-strong team following suit last September.

“We're more focused and more productive across Monday to Thursday and employees guard that Friday, so they'll make sure the production plan gets done,” Kate Hulley, chief executive of Belmont Packaging, told The National.

When British offices emptied at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, with staff ordered to work from home unless they were considered an essential worker, employers were forced to adopt a new way of working.

Later, as restrictions eased, many employees fearful of catching Covid-19 continued to work from their bedrooms and kitchens, while some employers adopted a hybrid model with staff in the office a few days of the week and at home the rest.

British companies are already trialling four-day weeks

Now, as the UAE government begins its new 4.5-day week, with staff finishing work at midday on Friday, the UK may be inspired to follow its lead.

“It’s an interesting global experiment the UAE are undertaking,” Simon Penney, UK trade commissioner for the Middle East and consul general in Dubai, told The National.

“One thing Covid has proven is that it is far easier to be more flexible in how and where people work than it ever has been in the past. The UAE could end up being trailblazers.”

“Time will tell” whether the UK can learn from the UAE’s shifting work pattern, which will reveal whether “further flexibility … translates into hours worked and productivity”, Mr Penney added.

However, several UK companies are already trialling shorter working weeks, hoping for an increase in productivity through a better work-life balance, Kate Palmer, HR advice director at employment law consultancy Peninsula, told The National.

“Covid has also brought with it a greater desire for flexible working in the UK and a 4.5-day working week would aid recruitment and retention in the UK,” Ms Palmer told The National.

“I suspect the UK will look closely to this move and use it as an example of how this change in working impacts productivity and success, and if the UAE reaps the benefits, then this may pave the way for UK businesses to do the same as it will be a tried and tested concept.”

Interestingly, Belmont Packaging was already working a 4.5-day week before its switch to a Monday to Thursday rotation in 2019, with staff finishing at 12pm on a Friday.

“On the Fridays, we would have two hours of production time, and then two hours for cleaning and maintenance, which turned into a bit of a non-event and not the most productive,” said Ms Hulley, who then looked at absorbing the four hours into a four-day week, without cutting staff pay.

Another UK organisation considering a four-day week is the Scottish government, after the Scottish National Party pledged in its April manifesto to design a £10 million pilot to help companies explore the benefits and costs of such a move.

Shorter weeks boost staff productivity and wellbeing

Meanwhile, online lender Atom Bank introduced a four-day work week with shorter hours for its 430 staff without cutting their pay at the end of November.

Employees now work 34 hours over four days, with the option to take either Monday or Friday off, with the move inspired by the pandemic to help improve staff wellbeing and retention, according to chief executive of the FinTech firm Mark Mullen.

“Before Covid, the conventional wisdom was you had to commute in, sit at a desk all day and repeat that process when you commuted home,” said Mr Mullen, who has led the Durham-based bank since 2014.

“Covid showed us that it wasn't necessary … I think doing 9-5, Monday to Friday is a pretty old-fashioned way of working.”

Whether such as move could work across the UK, however, would vary from industry to industry, according to Bradley Jones, executive director of the thought leadership forum, the UK-UAE Business Council.

“What employees in the UK seem to value most is the opportunity to work flexible hours, regardless of whether that is stretched over four, 4.5 or five days, so that people can work around their personal commitments,” said Mr Jones.

“We embrace flexible working hours as far as we are able to in the Business Council Secretariat itself.”

UAE companies to become more flexible

Taking the new concept “as far as companies are able to” seems to be general expectation in the Emirates.

Mr Penney said most UAE organisations he hears from are retaining the same number of working hours as before.

“So, you're not seeing half a day's worth of hours lost. Companies are either starting slightly earlier or finishing slightly later to make up for that half day on the Friday,” he said.

The consulate will follow such a pattern he added, helping to “act as a precursor to greater flexibility of staff to choose when and where they work".

He expects Fridays to mirror the pre-pandemic UK tradition, where many employees, particularly in London, worked from home on a Friday rather than head into the office.

John Martin St Valery, chair of British Business Group Dubai and Northern Emirates, said the mandate is that businesses and organisations, both public and private, must implement a 48-hour working week but how they do so is up to them.

He recalls the 1999 book Don't They Know It's Friday? Cross-Cultural Considerations for Business and Life in the Gulf, by Jeremy Williams, which references the challenges UK businesses in the GCC used to face with the different weekends between the two geographies.

“We all got the calls on a Friday, and we reciprocated by calling back on a Sunday,” Mr Martin St Valery said. “I say that in jest, but we want to be aligned with the UK or the western way of working.”

New working week will boost UK-UAE trade and investment

The switch will have a particularly positive impact on UK-UAE trade and investment, said Mr Jones, with five days now open each week when commercial transactions between both countries can take place.

“For British companies in the UAE there will be an immediate benefit in that their working hours will be more closely aligned with that of their head offices based in the UK,” Mr Jones said.

“The UAE economy will see a significant economic boost because it will become a much more attractive destination for highly skilled professionals to live and work in, and because the working week is now in synch with most of the major trading and financial hubs around the world.”

This is not the first shift for the UAE's working patterns: until May 2006 the country enjoyed a Thursday-Friday break.

The same can be said for the UK, with most Britons putting in six days a week until the 1930s, when American car manufacturer Henry Ford and the British pharmacy chain Boots popularised the two-day weekend as a way to raise staff wellbeing and productivity.

British employers certainly need to keep staff happy, as the country grapples with a labour shortage.

The number of vacancies rose to a record 1.17 million the three months to October, according to the UK's Office for National Statistics, amid Britain's robust post-pandemic employment landscape.

A shorter week does not automatically reduce stress

Even at Atom Bank, its voluntary four-day concept does not solve everything, with employees potentially working longer hours on the days they are in, which might cause issues for people with other obligations, such as picking children up from school.

At Belmont Packaging, Ms Hulley concedes that her new system means staff now have four long days, with factory staff working from 7am to 5pm and office staff starting at either 7.15am or 7.30am

“The biggest adjustment is the long hours,” she said. “A few of us in the office have quite lengthy commute either side of the day, including me ... and you get to Friday, and think, 'I'm knackered.'"

However, Ms Hulley, a mother-of-three who bought the business in 2013, says she simply moves some of her hours to a Friday if she gets too tired in the week.

“The beauty of being an independent business is being able to flex whenever and however you need,” she said. “I'm a real strong advocate of a four-day week; it brings huge benefits, such as spending quality time with your loved ones and looking after your mental health. Gone are the days where we need to work all hours to be productive. You just need to be smarter and work less to be more productive.”

Looking ahead, Ms Palmer said any business considering a shorter week must consider the practical challenges of doing so, such as seeking agreement from staff before any changes to contractual terms and conditions are finalised.

“While a reduction in working hours will likely be favoured by many, such an outcome cannot be assumed,” she said.

“This is particularly important whereby the reduction in days increases the daily working hours or reduces salary.”

Once changes have been consulted and accepted, employers must still monitor the performance, workload and impact on their employees, Ms Palmer added, as reduced days have been criticised for not recognising the underlying causes of employee burnout and dissatisfaction, namely that their workloads are overwhelming.

“Oftentimes, employees on four-day weeks are still expected to produce the same levels of work, so find themselves more stressed due to the lack of time they have to complete it. They may feel forced which to work overtime during evening or weekends which, ultimately, can end up causing more problems than was there to begin with,” she said.

Overseas trials set the bar high

Meanwhile in the UAE, the country’s new working week does not fully align with the rest of the Gulf, which remains on a Sunday to Thursday rotation, though that might change in the future.

“As the other Gulf markets continue to diversify and transition to more knowledge-intensive, technology driven industries, they will also be seeking to attract and retain talented professionals to boost productivity and competitiveness, so I would imagine other countries will be observing the impact of the new working week in the UAE very closely and perhaps following suit,” said Mr Jones.

While Atom Bank’s new working practices are being trialled for a few months, it says the concept is based on research from Iceland, where company trials of shorter weeks led to an improved work-life balance for staff who had more time to spend with their families, on hobbies and doing chores.

The trials run by Reykjavík City Council and the national government between 2015 and 2019 included more than 2,500 workers – the equivalent of about 1 per cent of Iceland's working population.

Preschools, offices, social service providers, and hospitals took part, moving to a 35 or 36-hour week from the normal 40 hours. The programme was such a success that 86 per cent of Iceland's workforce is now committed to shorter hours for the same pay, or will gain the right to.

There’s also the environmental factor to consider. If the UK switched to a four-day week by 2025, the country could slash its emissions by 127 million tonnes, a reduction of more than 20 per cent, according to with a 2021 study by environmental organisation Platform London.

Atom said the carbon footprint of running its office fell nearly 60 per cent during lockdown, something it would like to continue.

Ms Hulley hopes more businesses will follow her lead and move to a shorter week, though she said it would probably need to happen at a government level to give businesses the confidence to do so.

“As a manufacturing business, we are definitely going against the grain. My peers said, 'that's a crazy move' because manufacturers think you need to be available all hours and just produce, produce, produce to be profitable and successful,” she said.

“But we are making it work and will continue to fight to retain that. It's a healthy thing to do and why not change it up? Why can't a four-day working week work?”

Updated: January 07, 2022, 8:59 AM