4-day workweek pilot in South Africa – the results are in, with some surprises

 ·1 Dec 2023

The results of the first 4-day workweek pilot in South Africa, which started on 1 March 2023, have been published – and while the well-being metrics were encouraging, there were some unique challenges faced with the new work model.

“Contrary to initial scepticism, the first ever pilot of the 4-day week in a developing country – and the first in Africa – has shown huge benefits for both employees and employers,” said 4 Day Week South Africa.

The model prescribes 100% of the pay for 80% of the time in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output. 28 South African businesses and one Botswanan business participated in this first pilot.

These businesses included tax and finance services, marketing agencies, employment services companies, and IT software companies, among others.

The report noted that companies rated their experience an impressive 8.0 out of 10, with 92% definitely intending to continue the 4-day week or considering it.

“Employees value their time off so much that 51% say they would need a 21 – 50% pay increase to revert to a 5 day week at their next job. Additionally, 13% report that no amount of money would induce them to return to the 5-day formula,” said 4 Day Week.

Other notable outcomes of the first trial in South Africa include the following:

  • A 10.5% average increase in company revenue over the course of the trial period;
  • Almost half (49%) of employees reported an increase in productivity during the trial;
  • Resignation rates decreased by 11%;
  • The number of sick and personal days taken by employees also decreased during the trial, with a 9% weighted decrease in absenteeism; and
  • A third of participants experienced a decrease in work stress during the trial period, with rates of burnout dropping for 57% of people. This is despite an increase in workload for 31% of the sample.

“The 4-day week presents a rare combination of benefits for both employees and employers by enhancing well-being, productivity, and work organisation.

“It is exciting to see South African results showing similar benefits to those we observe around the world while also having unique aspects that leave us enthusiastic about its potential for future participants and the wider economy,” said the local research lead Professor Mark Smith of Stellenbosch Business School.

It hasn’t been without its challenges

According to the findings, South African companies are not as progressive as their global counterparts regarding the ability to reduce their weekly working hours by 20%, and some have found it a challenge.

South African companies managed around a 12% reduction in the work week for 100% of productivity, while others have been able to creep towards the 20% mark.

The pilot has found that South African companies are not taking the reduced work hours by taking off the conventional Friday or a Monday off.

They have been more creative in approaching the 20% work hours reduction by choosing to take Wednesdays off, fortnightlies (day off every two weeks), or structuring the time off through two half days.

Alternatively, some companies have taken the weekly hour target of 32 hours and structured office hours throughout the week to make up the 20% reduction – meaning, while they work Monday to Friday, they’ve shortened the office hours per day.

However, many South African companies couldn’t continue with the model when public holidays were added into the mix, which was noted in April. The report also noted that two companies stopped the trial midway through the six-month period.

The report also highlighted that organisations that faced the demand for continuous or long operating hours faced additional challenges, but there were a number of organisations successfully rolling out the 4-day week that also had long and even continuous operating times.

The most notable challenges faced by companies that participated include:

  • Those who had a shorter time to plan and prepare for the transition seemed to struggle;
  • Those who only partially rolled out the 4-day week to certain employees or certain departments faced challenges. For example, organisations where senior managers and leaders had explicitly excluded themselves from the 4-day week working arrangements as they were “too busy” were unable to role model the behaviours; and
  • Organisations had to address the management of leave arrangements and how to deal with the cliff edge at the end of the pilot. In terms of the leave arrangements, a number of organizations found they had to review their policies and practices.

Despite these challenges, 4 Day Week said the 4-day week is not a panacea for all challenges. If an organization is already under-resourced or has other difficulties, these weaknesses are unlikely to disappear.

The organisation added that a successful implementation requires management commitment, planning and leadership, as well as the buy-in from employees.

“With many of the organizations continuing with the 4-day week arrangements, and others awaiting top management approval, it will be interesting to follow the trajectory of both the organizations and their employees as the arrangements mature,” it said.

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