Does a shorter workweek mean a better work performance?

Celine Chami
Jan 13, 2022

This article is available in Arabic.

The UAE recently announced that starting January 2022, it is shifting its official weekend to Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday. With the aim of aligning with global trends, the shift happened in public institutions and remains optional for the private sector. This could mean that enterprises will opt to follow suit or not, depending on their needs, work model and company culture. It could also mean that employees now have the option to choose a more suitable work schedule, in line with their own needs, lifestyle and flexibility.

The UAE workweek is the shortest amongst Middle Eastern countries, and was welcomed by employees in the country as well as HR professionals. A shorter workweek looks at first sight full of benefits for employees and a promising step in increasing employee performance and engagement.

I sat with performance management expert Dr. Mona Rizkallah Hardane, Coordinator of the Master in Leadership and Human Resources Management – Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at Saint Joseph University of Beirut, to understand how she views this move and whether it really benefits companies to adopt it.

What is the 4-day workweek?

As the name suggests, the 4-day week consists of working four days only, instead of the usual five; in terms of the number of working hours, the 4-day week has been set, depending on the country or the company, between 35 and 30 working hours without the salary being reduced; this work rate therefore offers three days of rest.

The decrease in work hours is a global trend that started in Northern Europe where personal development and well-being at work are essential values. One of the first significant experiences was carried out in Iceland, where between 2015 and 2019 2,500 Icelanders were offered to work 4 days a week while earning the same. A study by the British think tank Autonomy showed that this change in no way affected the productivity of those employees.

In Sweden, employees work 30 hours per week, which placed it in second place in the OECD’s 2016 “better living” happiness list.

In the Netherlands, people work an average of 30 hours per week with a maximum daily working time set at 10 hours, where they can decide their own schedule and distribute their working hours as they wish.

You might think that this system only benefits the personal well-being of employees where it is about making people happy; in fact, working four days can also boost employees productivity as well as they well-being at work.

Is it true that a 4-day workweek provides a better work-life balance?

Of course. At the start of 2022, more than 60% of the working population is represented by workers belonging to the “Y” and “Z” generations; in 2025, these generations will represent nearly 75% of the working population. For those generations who want to work smarter instead of longer, in an environment that actively contributes to their well-being, one of the most important criteria is work-life balance. Therefore, the company is no longer perceived as a single financial and social source: many factors are now expected by employees, such as personal development and quality of life at work. For companies who build on employer branding to attract young talent, the right balance between professional and personal time becomes a strong argument that they put forward when recruiting.

Does the decision to move to a shorter workweek positively impact productivity and performance ?

According to the International Labour Organization, workers who have long working days of more than eight hours and/or a heavy workload, report a decrease in motivation at work and therefore in employee performance, which has an impact on productivity. The example of the Toyota factory is proof of this. In 2002, the Toyota plant in Götebor, Sweden switched to the 30-hour week: in 19 years, Toyota’s profits increased by 25%; the plant manager even noted that the implementation of the 4-day week made it possible to limit turnover while facilitating recruitment.

A study by Charles J. Hobson of Indiana Northwest University showed that when work-life balance is not respected, the effects are felt on a personal level in the form of stress and anxiety, but also in the form of decreased motivation and increased absenteeism. On the other hand, a study conducted by the University of Oxford and based on the experience of 5,000 people working 4 days a week at British Telecom, showed that employees were happier as they took more calls with better customer satisfaction, which has led to improved productivity at the level of the company.

How does a shorter workweek translate into work involvement ?

It certainly has a greater work involvement. In 2018, Andrew Barnes tested the 4-day to 32-hour week at his New Zealand-based financial services company, Perpetual Guardian. During this period, the team leaders noticed a decrease in absenteeism; employees arrived on time, took fewer breaks, surfed social media less and found ways to work more efficiently. In addition, team leaders noted that employees were more rested, and engaged more at work by completing their tasks faster.

While some researchers consider that the reduction of working time to 4 days is necessary because of technological changes, others find that certain conditions must be met for the reduction of working time to be successful.

Isabelle Rey-Millet, professor of management at ESSEC, finds that reducing working hours is within the reach of all companies today, because in all sectors of activity, many tedious and repetitive tasks can be carried out by artificial intelligence and digital tools, hence freeing employee time for more important and strategic tasks.

What are the conditions needed for the success of a shorter workweek ?

There are two main conditions that must be met to properly kick off a shorter workweek ;

  1. A new work organization : Working 30 hours a week involves getting rid of non-quality tasks, working more as a team, improving communication and preparing better to ensure continuity of service with clients. It also means for the employees to better manage their time by eliminating unnecessary meetings and prioritizing projects.
  2. An organization of the fifth day : companies shouldn’t just cut down on working hours, but take a serious look at how employees were going to spend the free day they gained. They should encourage their employees to devote their free time to family, volunteering and professional development. Ideally, and like Microsoft did, companies could even take it a step further and fund activities like family trips, yoga and athletics. In Microsoft’s case, the result was immediate: an impressive 40% increase in sales, compared to the same month a year earlier.

The 4-day workweek looks like a true fairy tale: improvement in the well-being and performance of employees, increase in productivity. Could this not be the new organization of working time that the new working environment imposes on us? It therefore remains to be generalized.

Celine Chami

Marketing and communications consultant

Celine is a brand expert and university lecturer with over 20 years of experience. As well as working and training hundreds of companies in the MEA region, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Resources.