The concept of a four-day work week is attracting increasing interest in countries around the world, including South Africa.

As the world’s largest experiment in the four-day work week approaches its halfway point, its organizers note a significant improvement in people’s well-being, according to Bloomberg.

The trial, which is being conducted in the UK as part of a partnership between 4 Day Week Global and researchers from Cambridge, Boston College and Oxford University, involves around 3,300 employees from 70 different companies. Participating businesses operate only 80 percent of normal hours, but see no change in pay or productivity.

The trial began in June and will continue until November.

“Unsurprisingly, companies believe they have had an exceptionally positive experience with revenue and productivity levels, [that have] either persisting or, in some cases, improving,” Charlotte Lockhart, managing director and founder of 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit that has been working to promote adoption of the four-day work week since 2018, told Bloomberg.

Measures of well-being, including stress, burnout, sleep quality, family-work-life balance, and life satisfaction, all saw improvements. Lockhart added that surprisingly, working fewer hours does not reduce productivity. In some cases, she said, productivity increased.

“Everything we’ve found so far confirms what we’ve always said is very interesting. But I think the big thing about this study is that we’re going to have empirical data that feeds into it,” Lockhart said.

On South Africa, Kirk Krueger, chief awards specialist at the South African Awards Association (SARA), said local employers needed to understand the model, decide whether it would work for them and know how to implement it effectively.

How does it work?

“The four-day work week should not be confused with the so-called compressed work week,” Kruger said. For the latter, employees receive the same remuneration and work the same hours per week. However, they work more hours on weekdays to compensate for the total weekly working hours.

In contrast, a four-day work week means that employees will work one less day per week, but the same number of hours per day as before. They will continue to receive full pay and benefits. In essence, they are paid for results, not hours worked.

Why the interest?

Employers and employees alike are interested in this model because it promotes a healthier work-life balance, increases motivation, and has a positive impact on productivity.

Workers can attend to personal, family and life priorities on days off, resulting in a better quality of life, mental and physical well-being and more energy.

Who will accept it?

“I don’t think South Africa as a country or as an economy is ready for this on a large scale, and interested employers will want to check the situation before committing,” Kruger said.

Potential users are likely to be niche organizations such as smaller and medium-sized technology companies. Even so, they should take the time to investigate its impact on their operations, perhaps by running a pilot program first.

How does it compare to WFH?

“Working from home has taken off since Covid started it, and I think it’s here to stay,” Kruger said. For now, he said, WFH will remain a focus for employers because of the flexibility and location independence it offers and will eclipse the four-day model.

However, as WFH becomes the norm, workers – especially those with scarce skills – may start looking for employers that offer both.

Is this a good way to attract and retain employees?

“Research shows higher levels of employee engagement, so there’s good reason for employers to consider this as part of their employee value proposition,” Kruger said.

This can differentiate them from the sought-after and focused candidates who will deliver whether they work four days or five days. And it will help retain those who appreciate the flexibility it gives them, he said.

What do employers need to consider?

It is critical that companies consider the impact of the model on business continuity and customer engagement. This ensures that they do not experience service disruptions during peak hours due to staff shortages.

“This requires a high level of engagement with employees to develop effective policies, including structured communication, proactive change management and joint corrective action,” Krueger said.

Awards overview

With careful planning, employers can make the four-day workweek a new feature of their overall rewards strategy. “They should check with their compensation professional to make sure their vacation, overtime, pay and benefits are consistent with this new way of working,” Krueger said.

South African labor laws will likely need to be amended to permanently accommodate such a shift. Abigail Butcher, associate at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr’s employment law practice, noted that South Africa has existing legislation and negotiated positions on working hours, making any formal changes to the schedule difficult.

She pointed to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA), which regulates the working hours of employees earning less than the ministerial threshold of 224,080.30 rand, and some sectors which are regulated by industry regulations.

Businesses can also enter into collective bargaining agreements with unions that regulate working hours, she said.

“In light of the above, it is clear that terms of employment, such as working hours, are tightly regulated by labor law and that legislation needs to be amended in order for South Africa to implement a four-day working week,” she said.

Read: South Africa’s 9-to-5 working day is no longer enjoyable amid a push to shorten the working week

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