June 22, 2020

During the industrial revolution, workers were expected to work long hours—as much as 12 hours per day, six days a week. In doing so, factories in the UK aggressively manufactured textiles and produced iron to help the dying economy out of its rut. But in today’s modern society where machines and automated processes have replaced factory workers due to technological advancement, productivity isn’t necessarily defined by lengthy work hours anymore. 

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, Singapore has been thrust into exploring new ways of working—and one suggestion made by Parliament on June 5 was the implementation of a four-day workweek, or having flexible hours to improve work-life balance. This proposition saw many nodding their heads in approval, while others raised their eyebrows, questioning its practicality. 

As other countries start to re-emerge from isolation, a similar work model is being considered. Over in Japan, Microsoft demonstrated how a four-day workweek could increase productivity by up to 40 per cent and reduce electricity costs by 23 per cent. Elsewhere in Finland, the country is considering a four-day workweek, with New Zealand following suit in a bid to revitalise domestic tourism. Andrew Barnes, CEO of New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian, believes such flexible arrangements will not only make employees happier but also improve their overall efficacy. He went on to conduct an experiment by offering an extra day off to see if employees would “change their behaviour, so productivity wouldn’t fall”—and the results were positive. Revenue and profitability rose 6 per cent and 12.5 per cent respectively, with employees reporting that they felt increased job satisfaction and lesser stress.

Debates about four-day workweeks can ignite a deeper conversation on the quest for better work-life balance. While the idea may sound irresistible, especially for busy parents who require more time to look after their children, or even millennials who desire to pursue non-work related passions, a shorter workweek comes with its own set of challenges.

Certain employers avoid having a four-day workweek, fearing that deadlines will not be met. On the same note, employees at Perpetual Guardian experienced greater anxiety when they rushed to complete their work within a shorter time frame. Across the board, many people may find themselves having to work longer hours during the four days, just to complete tasks promptly. Regardless of the number of workdays a week, productivity levels can decline if we work excessively for too many hours at a stretch. 

For customer-facing retail and hospitality jobs, a four-day workweek may not be viable. In a retail environment, having staff physically present can provide a better customer experience and result in a sale. Imagine going to a restaurant that is fully powered by technology. Would you be comfortable ordering from a tablet and getting food delivered by a robot? I don’t think you would mind if it’s a fast-casual concept, but what if it is a Michelin-starred restaurant? 

While a shorter workweek can possibly be implemented in most sectors, the process is less straightforward. In the financial sector, clients expect to meet their wealth managers at any given time, if not, business will be taken elsewhere. This arrangement isn’t suitable for emergency workers either. If you are a paramedic or a police officer, it would be almost impossible to strictly follow a four-day work schedule especially if an accident or crisis occurs. When lives are on the line, not showing up for work isn’t negotiable, no matter what the contract says. 

On the flip side, an additional day away from work and commuting can give us more free time to engage in other pursuits like having a side gig for extra income or volunteering on the side. A four-day week can also reduce costs for both employers and employees. From the employer’s standpoint, they can decrease operating costs, while staff can save money on commuting and other miscellaneous expenses like exorbitant $20 kale and quinoa bowl CBD lunches, in lieu of cheaper alternatives at home.

Studies have shown that shorter workweeks can lead to better emotional and physical health, as the extra time spent with loved ones is said to improve our overall well-being. Such instances enhance our quality of life allowing us to be happier and more fulfilled, so we can perform better and excel at work. 

With job-hopping becoming a common practice nowadays (especially among millennials), having an extra day off can retain talented employees in the long run. They may view it as an additional perk and not jump to another company that doesn’t offer the same benefits. Moreover, when employees see that the organisation takes their welfare seriously, they are more inclined to pledge their loyalty to the company. After successful rounds of experiments with a four-day workweek, that led to greater staff retention and recruitment, American restaurant chain Shake Shack is now a believer in its effectiveness.

If you are allowed to go on a four-day workweek, it’s best not to follow it to a T. Consider all the possible negative consequences and find solutions to sidestep them. Instead of thinking about working less, you should be thinking of how you are value-adding to the organisation—you want to be an asset, not a liability.