Maybe the time has come to slay the sacred cow that is the five-day working week

Two years ago, no one could imagine working from home. Maybe the time has come to slay the next sacred cow, the five-day work week.

Maybe the time has come to slay the sacred cow that is the five-day working week

16 April 2022, Daily Maverick 168


WHEN South Africans think of employment, it’s normally framed as an issue of unemployment. It makes sense after all the latest figures are terrifying, but what’s as concerning is the tectonic shifts that have happened in the workplace among those who are actually employed.

In the northern hemisphere, it’s been dubbed the Great Resignation; waves of people quitting their jobs because of their experience of the lockdown. A recent study by Henley Business School UK, shows that this phenomenon is not a flash in the pan, but a contagion spread by the rigours of fighting COVID-19.

The Henley study was conducted in November two years after a pioneering study by the school to gauge the sentiment around a four-day working week. There are some very important findings, but perhaps one of the most significant is that it is no longer the preserve of Millennials or the so-called Generation Z to call for greater autonomy in the workplace; to have the right to use their own equipment, whether cell phone or lap top, and to dress as they wish that will have the C-suite sweating, but rather a sea change in the approach to work and careers across the board.

Before the pandemic, companies could safely assume that their middle-aged staff saw their careers as defining their lives, while the Gen Z and Millennials saw their jobs as just a way to make a living, happily jumping from one opportunity to another. The study reveals that there has been a very marked narrowing of the gap. More and more employees are standing up for their rights and if companies want them to show up as they are, they’ll take them at their word – and sometimes companies aren’t ready for that. It goes a long way to explaining why the Great Resignation has taken root the way it has. More and more employees in Britain are saying they’d be prepared to take a pay cut if it meant being able to work from home and avoid the commute to the office.

These are all big shifts, but the biggest one is the question the researchers set out to answer in 2019: is a four-day week feasible? There are huge fears around it. For a start it goes against the old norm. Companies struggle with command and control, or at least some managers do. Working remotely has been possible for years, but it took a pandemic to make it a reality. Now that the immediate threat has dissipated, there are some managers – and C-suite types too – who are hell bent on getting everyone back into the office. So, what of cutting the five-day week to four?

Henry Ford and the five-day week

It’s another big leap, after all we’ve only had a five-day week for the last 100 years. Henry Ford implemented it in his factories, before then many workers spent the entire week in the factory. The Babylonians gave us the seven-day week in the first place, then the Victorian English invented the day-and-a-half weekend, because the sabbath was more for carousing than churching, which then led to the guarantee of a Saturday afternoon to workers to get them to stop overindulging and reporting in sick on a Monday. Eventually, the Great Depression cemented the two-day weekend in a bid to cut unemployment.

When Ford cut the working week to five days, he did it to boost productivity – and the economy because his staff would have time to spend, especially on the cars they were making. The Henley study shows that the same can be achieved by cutting the work week even further to four days. Speaking to more than 2 000 employees and 500 business leaders, the researchers found that 65% of the businesses surveyed are now implementing a four-day working week for some or all of their staff. 66% have reported a drop in costs, 64% say the quality of work has not dropped, 66% believe working shorter hours will enable companies to produce more work at higher quality. 75% say staff are happier and less stressed working shorter hours. 66% of staff believe working shorter hours will improve their mental wellbeing.

The South African situation

And what about in South Africa? Frankly, many people’s initial reaction is that productivity is already low and that this would be an unmitigated disaster. That this might work, but only for knowledge and creative workers. Many sectors are really tough, though perhaps not impossible, to crack for flexible or reduced working. For sectors such as retail, teaching, airlines, mining and manufacturing then only four-fifths of delivery or output is possible. And in low-margin industries companies will be unlikely to be able to afford it.

So, an enormous amount of work remains to advance in flexible working, work that companies like Timewise in the UK are doing, whose aim is to  ‘break down the barriers to flexible working, and make it more widely available, by designing more options for good flexible work’.

Benefits of a shorter working week

Where it does work, the savings are substantial: greater staff satisfaction, higher productivity and lower sickness rates – precisely what activists for the shortening of the work week wanted from seven days to six, five-and-a-half and then five – amount to a combined saving of £104-billion, or 2,2% of the total annual turnover of the companies surveyed. South Africa is no stranger to Monday morning absentee-ism – or TGIF days off – which is why most companies have written into their HR policies that any sick leave taken on Mondays or Fridays has to be accompanied by a doctor’s note.

The biggest win for the adoption of a selective four-day working week in this country though, would be the opening it would provide for the side hustlers. A year before Four Better of Four Worse, Henley UK’s inaugural study into the four-day working week , researchers looked at the rise of the side-gig and side hustle in Britain. In 2019, when Henley Business School Africa repeated the survey here, the findings were almost identical.

Much has been written about the importance of allowing and nurturing a side-hustle culture in corporate South Africa. Many of the reasons are the same as for the four-day week: it encourages employees to stay, the company benefits from them learning new skills. The side-hustlers are no less loyal to the company, in fact they’re overwhelmingly more loyal than other employees and, critically, if their side hustles take off, they start employing people. In a total win-win situation, sometimes, their side hustles can become approved service providers for their companies, closing the circle.

Many of the people surveyed last November would continue to spend the extra day off shopping or spending time with their families and friends, but a third of them would spend the time actually pursuing their side hustle. Maybe, just maybe, by cutting the work week in South Africa, companies could cut their costs, keep their staff and create jobs all in one go.

Two years ago, no one could imagine working from home. Maybe the time has come to slay the next sacred cow, the five-day work week.


Dean Jon Foster-Pedley

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