Will the world follow the UAE's modernised working week?

From the UK to Japan, governments and companies are tackling the complex but perhaps epoch-defining issue of modernised working weeks

Transport strikes in London will be making the prospect of a four-day week yet more attractive for many British workers. AFP
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The UAE might have been the first high-income country to adopt a shorter working week, but it is far from the only one mulling it. Six months ago, all workers in the public sector, as well as many in private companies, became the focus of policymakers all over the world, who continue to weigh up the consequences of such a move.

In the UK, more than 3,000 workers at 70 companies are about to trial six months of a four-day working week. It is a significant pilot programme. Participants will lose no pay and their working hours will decrease by 20 per cent. In return, they are committing to maintain at least 100 per cent productivity.

The Scottish government is set to start a similar trial in 2023, as is Wales. In March, Belgians gained the right to a four-day working week with the same salary but no reduction in hours.

In more and more economies, it is not governments driving change but private companies. In Japan, a nation where overwork and burnout is a significant health issue, the government so far has only set out plans to try and achieve a better work-life balance. Microsoft, however, has trialled actual reductions in the working week, offering a three-day weekend over a period in 2019. Results showed happier employees and a 40-per cent increase in productivity.

The UAE has the most experience of all. A month after the 4.5-day working week was implemented, British polling firm YouGov released data about its impact. The majority of those surveyed said they were happy with the decision, particularly those between the ages of 35 to 44. The most chosen benefits respondents saw or expected to see were better work-life balance, more productivity and the economic boost of being better aligned to global offices.

Similar findings were mentioned by UAE Minister of State for Government Development and the Future Ohood Al Roumi, who at a World Economic Forum panel event last month shared the effects of the country's new working week on government staff. Results so far show that 70 per cent of employees believe they are more efficient. Furthermore, a 55 per cent drop in absenteeism has been recorded.

Ms Al Roumi emphasised that the decision was made to promote: “well-being, strengthen family bonds and economic growth as people with more time off spend in the domestic market, and to better align with global markets.”

The UK trial is being conducted for similar reasons. The organisation leading it, 4 Day Week Global, said that Covid-19 has placed companies in a "new frontier for competition over quality of life". In this environment, hard, traditional pull factors such as salary are being joined by more holistic ones of wellbeing, satisfaction and, ultimately, happiness in and outside work.

The debate is ongoing. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk recently made headlines after emailing an ultimatum to executive employees to come into the office "or quit". The trend's potential imbalance is another concern. There are many jobs where such flexibility is impractical, such as healthcare and policing. Many of these careers already experience dangerous shortages. If employees start seeing even more attractive conditions in office jobs, more might be driven to leave.

Whatever critics and advocates say, thinking about employee well-being is undoubtedly one of the pandemic's biggest silver linings. Whether with modern or traditional approaches, governments and firms that think about it are best prepared to succeed in the emerging struggle to attract global talent. And as more countries and companies implement real-world policies and trials, data and responses from the UAE are going to form a crucial part of the international conversation.

Published: June 07, 2022, 3:00 AM