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The pros and cons of the four-day work week

The pros and cons of the four-day work week
Supporters of four-day work weeks believe the change could improve both productivity and wellbeing of professionals. Image: Towfiqu Barbhuiya / Unsplash

The concept has been floating around for a little while; now, some local companies are also choosing to adopt four-day work weeks. We explore what it means and how it would (or wouldn’t) work.

In September 2022, the local branch of global non-profit 4 Day Week South Africaannounced the pilot of the first four-day work week that would take place in South Africa from February 2023. 

The concept of the four-day work week is not new, but it is newly implemented in our country. According to an Australian study, the roots of the concept are in the idea of a “society of leisure”, which was first popularised in “Western industrial countries” in the Sixties and Seventies. But the idea of a shortened work week truly found its feet as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted the workplace and forced companies to be innovative with their working arrangements, and this ultimately added fuel to the concept of a four-day work week.

Nicola Paine, one of two directors at 4 Day Week SA, tells Maverick Life that the four-day week is a global attempt to “improve productivity and wellness in the workplace; attract and retain talent; improve the lives of individuals, families and communities and have a positive impact on the environment”.

Paine says the particular style of work week that will be implemented in the pilot programme in South Africa is based on the “100-80-100 model”, which is “100% of the pay, 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output”. 

With 20 local companies already signed up, one wonders how the concept might work here, especially considering the state of our economy, and how it may affect employment laws. 

Improvements across the board (room) 

According to Talita Laubscher, a partner at Bowmans Employment and Benefits Practice in Johannesburg, the introduction of a four-day work week will not change much of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) besides the change in the terms of employment per company, which is already done with the employee’s consent. 

New research conducted by 4 Day Week found that after a six-month trial in Australia, Ireland, and the US, found that companies that implemented the concept with no pay cuts had an increase in productivity. It also reported that workers felt “less stressed and burnt out” with higher rates of life satisfaction; the report also notes that none of the companies has yet returned to a five-day work week. 

In addition, the study’s findings highlighted less time spent commuting, which has positive impacts on employees’ well-being and resources, as well as the environment.  

Paine adds that research has shown that even with a four-day work week, companies can maintain and even improve productivity. In fact, Professor Mark Smith of Stellenbosch University’s business school, who is also involved in 4 Day Week SA’s pilot programme, believes the concept serves to not only improve companies, but challenges the way we think about work and work culture. “Who is to say that a two-day weekend is the ideal model or that 5 x 8 hours (working eight hours, five days a week) is the best way to work?” he says. 

Smith explains that the four-day work week finally incorporates people’s life outside work – giving it space and acknowledging that they are not just “employees” (and don’t need to live their personal life within the company). 

Thus, Smith believes, the concept could benefit the country, not just individuals. “I actually think it should be a source of pride that South Africa is the first emerging economy to be included in the four-day week project. That is a sign of the modernity and potential dynamism in the South African economy.” 

A concept to be tested

Smith acknowledges the unique circumstances South Africa has as a country – and how they might affect South Africans differently.  

“For those further down the socioeconomic scale an extra day off in the week may lead to more double jobbing as they seek to raise their incomes – this could be good news in terms of living wages, but bad news in terms of well-being, stress and workload.” 

In addition, Smith explains that with extra time, side-hustle culture might expand: “Maybe some of those will take off into bigger operations that employ more people and drive the economy. However, for others more time on the side-hustle may crowd out other full-time entrepreneurs.”

For IQbusiness, a business management consulting firm in Cape Town that will be participating in 4 Day Week SA’s pilot programme next year, the success of the concept locally will depend on the relationship between employer and employee and rebuilding a corporate relationship based on trust and honesty. “We have to be able to support one another, from junior staffers right through to the most senior executive, in how they manage and deliver on their responsibilities. Corporate South Africa needs to focus on rebuilding these values of trust and honesty and supporting the people in the business to perform at their best while being enabled to live a more balanced life,” says Jakobus Wilken, the lead partner for the pilot at IQbusiness. DM/ML

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