SA could see four-day workweek as remote work evolves

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 07 Oct 2021

South African firms may in future introduce a four-day workweek as the next frontier of the work-from-home (WFH) or hybrid work structure.

Many companies across the globe are trialling or seriously considering adopting a four-day workweek, and Spain, Japan and New Zealand have announced pilot projects for a four-day, 32-hour workweek for employers.

The trend, which industry pundits tout as potentially more productive than a five-day workweek, began after many businesses that transitioned to remote or hybrid work structures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic discovered the shift was less thorny than expected.

Global companies that have already introduced the trend include Unilever, New York-based American fast food chain Shake Shack, e-commerce firm Shopify and Microsoft Japan.

They mostly rely on technological advancements such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and advanced video-conferencing tools, to make work more efficient for employees who are able to complete tasks remotely or from the office.

South African trends-as-business-solution firm Flux Trends recently became among the first local organisations to adopt a four-day workweek. It says the working model is an opportunity for team members to have “a day solely devoted to personal development and self-care”.

“As organisations and employees search for what exactly the future of work looks like, it is fitting that Flux, as a trend analysis company, is walking the talk: creating an environment that prioritises employees and their wellbeing. The move aims to encourage work-life balance, with a strong emphasis on ‘working smarter’,” says Dion Chang, founder and CEO of Flux Trends.

According to Chang, while more South African organisations are expected to move in this direction, it will unfold in baby steps and will likely happen in the distant future.

“It won't happen quickly, but as with all new business trends, some companies will adopt a new approach to work when they see other companies doing it.

“I think South African companies are still grappling with WFH and the ripple effect of that from here onwards, so baby steps will apply − especially for the more conservative companies that see a 9am to 5pm, 40-hour workweek as the holy template of office life.”

Dion Chang, founder and CEO of Flux Trends.
Dion Chang, founder and CEO of Flux Trends.

The eight-hours-per-day, 40-hours-per-week working template had its origins in the late 19th century, when labour unions were trying to reduce the 80+ hours which factory workers were being forced to work, he adds.

In today’s world, several factors would contribute to more local companies adopting a four-day workweek in a post-pandemic world, notes Chang. These are the available tech tools to optimise productivity;companies which have completed their trials, indicating over 40% boost in productivity (eg, Microsoft Japan); and numerous studies which found that working over 35 hours per week is the tipping point before productivity declines, with some experts suggesting employees should only be working six hours per day.

“In a digital era we should rather be measuring output and outcomes. A typical day in a 40-hour workweek just isn’t set up for efficiency: more so if you are tethered to a computer screen. Your energy cannot be sustained for eight hours and lockdown has ensured most people are working longer hours when working from home. How productivity is measured is also tied to a post-industrial revolution era – workers were paid for their time, and still are today, but not all time in an office is productive,” he continues.

Garsen Naidu, GM of Cisco Sub-Saharan Africa, says the American multinational networking company anticipated more organisations would introduce shorter workweeks. It responded by introducing remote working technologies to help company leaders start measuring performance in results and outcomes, not hours.

“I can’t see why a four-day workweek wouldn’t at least be a serious consideration for South African businesses in the future. Studies from across the globe have proven that staff working a four-day week are more productive, less stressed, more committed, loyal to their companies and more positive in general about life and their careers.

“At Cisco, we have always encouraged flexible working arrangements; it accommodates people’s different lifestyles and helps them balance their work and life,” saysNaidu.

According to Cisco’s research, 87% of workers surveyed in Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia want the ability to decide whether they work in the office or at home – or even in coffee shops, co-working spaces, customers’ or suppliers’ sites, hotels and other hospitality environments that are rethinking their own business models in light of changing working practices.

“Over the span of the pandemic and various levels of lockdown, Cisco moved quite quickly to encourage local companies to use technology that’s at their fingertips and can enable remote and flexible working models. We are currently doing the same with those moving to hybrid environments and will no doubt do the same when the world changes to a four-day workweek environment.”

While deliverables expected from staff aren’t going to change, the four-day workweek trend “has been built on the back of much research that shows that accommodating the work you need to deliver in a shorter space of time is possible through advances in technology, coupled with really big developments in AI and machine learning,” asserts Naidu.