4-day work week for employers in South Africa

 ·27 Aug 2022

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

As the world’s largest four-day work week experiment nears its halfway point, its organisers point to a significant improvement in people’s wellbeing, Bloomberg reports.

The trial, which is being conducted in the UK through partnerships between 4 Day Week Global and researchers at Cambridge, Boston College and Oxford University, includes approximately 3,300 workers across 70 different companies. Businesses who are participating, while only working 80 per cent of their usual hours, are seeing no changes in compensation or productivity.

The trial began in June and will continue until November.

“Anecdotally, companies are suggesting there’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience with revenue and productivity levels, [that have] either maintained or, in some cases, improved,” Charlotte Lockhart, the managing director and founder of 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit organization that has been working to support the adoption of a four-day work week since 2018, told Bloomberg.

Well-being indicators, including stress, burnout, sleep quality, family and work-life balance and life satisfaction, all noticed improvements. Lockhart added that, anecdotally, fewer working hours do not appear to reduce productivity. In some instances, she said, productivity has advanced.

“Everything we’re finding so far is backing up what we’ve always said, which is interesting. But I think that the important thing with this research is that we will have empirical data that feeds into that,” Lockhart said.

For South Africa, Kirk Kruger, master reward specialist with the South African Reward Association (SARA), said that local employers must understand the model, decide if it will 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,” said Kruger. For the latter, employees receive the same remuneration and work the same hours per week. However, they work more hours during on-days to make up their weekly total hours worked.

In contrast, a four-day work week means employees will work one day less in the week but the same number of hours per day as before. They will still receive their full salary and benefits. In essence, they are being paid for outputs and not for hours worked.

Why the interest?

Both employers and employees are interested in the model because it promotes a healthier work-life balance, increases motivation and has a positive effect on productivity.

On their in-week off-days, workers can take care of personal, family and lifestyle priorities, resulting in a better quality of life, mental and physical well-being, and more energy.

Who will adopt it?

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

Potential adopters are more likely to be niche organisations, such as smaller and medium-sized technology companies. Even then, they should take time to investigate its impact on their operations, possibly running a pilot programme first.

How does it compare to WFH?

“Since Covid ushered it in, work-from-home has gained momentum, and I think it is here to stay”, said Kruger. For now, he said WFH will remain the primary focus for employers due to the flexibility and location independence it offers and will overshadow 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 it a good way to attract and retain employees?

“Research shows a higher level of worker engagement, so there is good reason for employers to consider it as part of their employee value proposition,” said Kruger.

It can differentiate them with in-demand and self-motivated candidates who will deliver results whether they work four days or five. And it will help retain those who appreciate the flexibility it affords them, he said.

What do employers need to consider?

It is critical that companies consider the model’s impact on operational continuity and customer engagement. This will ensure they don’t experience lapses in service delivery during peak hours due to insufficient personnel.

“This requires a high level of engagement with employees to develop effective policies, including structured communication, active change management and collaborative corrective measures,” said Kruger.

Reviewing rewards

With careful planning, employers can make the four-day work week a new highlight of their total reward strategy. “They should consult their reward specialist to ensure their leave, overtime, pay and benefits structure aligns with this new way of working,” said Kruger.

South Africa’s labour laws will likely need amending to permanently accommodate such a shift. Abigail Butcher, associate in the Employment Law practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, noted that South Africa has standing law and negotiated positions around working hours, which complicate any formal shift in scheduling.

She pointed to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) which regulates the working hours of employees who earn under the ministerial threshold of R224,080.30, and certain sectors which are regulated by a sectoral determination.

Companies can also enter into collective agreements with trade unions which regulate working hours, she said.

“In light of the above, it is clear that conditions of employment such as working hours are highly regulated by labour legislation, and in order for South Africa to implement a four-day work week, this legislation would effectively need to be amended,” she said.

Read: South Africa’s 9-to-5 work day is no longer palatable amid push for shorter work week

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