How the UAE’s new workweek can be a game changer for its workforce
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How the UAE’s new workweek can be a game changer for its workforce

How the UAE’s new workweek can be a game changer for its workforce

There is a very strong business case for a shorter workweek, as people have more energy to be productive and efficient

Nancy W Gleason

The UAE’s recent announcement that it will shake up the labour laws was a win-win for everyone.

Twelve types of permits will be available moving forward, giving employees the ability to choose from six different work models. The effect will be to add greater levels of flexibility to workers and businesses, which will surely benefit the economy and wider society.

It comes just weeks after the transition to a Monday-Friday workweek, with some public sector entities now clocking out at noon on Friday while maintaining existing salaries and income. And the question now must surely be: is it time to think about a four-day work week around the world?

Four is better than five?
Complementing the new labour laws is a new and shorter work week as well. No other country in the world has a formal workweek policy less than the well-known five-day grind. But there’s no reason why countries shouldn’t make the switch – and do so immediately – for the health and productivity of their workers, and their economies.

Labour shortages remain a problem in many countries. One way to solve it: by creating more jobs with fewer hours. The unappealing demands of pre-Covid-19 work has helped fuel the massive labour shortages being experienced in the US in particular, as well as all around the world what some are calling the Great Resignation. A shorter workweek may entice these people back into the labour force.

There is a very strong business case for a shorter workweek, as people have more energy to be productive and efficient. Studies show that productivity rises when people work four days a week, while the mass adoption of a four-day workweek would allow companies to hire additional workers to fill vacated timeslots. This could plug the gaps resulting from Covid-19-related job losses or people quitting, and in the coming years it could help counter a projected rise in job losses resulting from automation of tasks in multiple sectors. There are other benefits, too, such as opening space for domestic travel, enabling continuing education, and fueling individual rejuvenation.

This explains why in Japan, authorities are encouraging employers to embrace four-day workweeks in a bid to improve work-life balance. Spain recently launched a three-year trial of a 32-hour workweek. And between 2015 and 2019, Iceland conducted the world’s largest pilot of a four-day working week, and found that productivity stayed the same or increased. As a result, 86 per cent of Icelanders work less today than before the study.

For the UAE, the work reduction was aimed at “increasing performance to advance the UAE’s economic competitiveness,” as well as boosting work-life balance and enhancing social wellbeing. But there are other benefits, too. Homogenisation with weekends in many other countries, including Muslim-majority economies such as Indonesia, will create a new ease of business for financial transactions and better access to global markets. It will also give the UAE an extra leg up in the so-called “talent wars” – the increasingly competitive hiring marketplace.

And because salaries will not be lowered, the extra time off will give employees space to further their education, travel, or spend time with friends and family.

Key to success – in the UAE and elsewhere – is ensuring that what results is not a compressed workweek. That has been tried before with dismal results. In 2011, the governor of Utah in the US instituted a mandatory 10-hour day, four-day workweek for state employees. The goal was to cut costs, but what transpired was a steep decrease in public services and no measurable productivity gains. Meanwhile, in France there has been 35-hour work-week on the books since 2000. In practice, however, many employees work longer hours but with overtime pay. France’s policy has not increased work-life balance nor leisure time, so they, too, are considering a four-day, 32-hour work week.

Shrinking the workweek will not, by itself, make employees healthier and happier. Additional measures by employers and regulators are needed. Bosses, who must become better managers and allocate appropriate resources, can’t do it alone. In many countries the right to disconnect is being legislated to protect overburdened employees, as demonstrated by Portugal’s recent adoption of a law that protects remote workers from being contacted on weekends.

Implementation will also require shifts in how societies function. Families will need to adjust to new school schedules for children, while leisure and service industries will have to adjust their offerings. In the UAE, how time is spent on Fridays – the Muslim holy day – must be addressed, and employers will need to be flexible for those practicing their faith. Crucially, the new UAE work policy allows private sector employers to implement flexible working hours and work-from-home options on Fridays, but how this will be regulated is an open question.

What’s clear – in the UAE, as elsewhere – is that Covid-19 has upended how we work. Issuing new labour laws, and shrinking the workweek are the types of bold moves needed to adjust to a post-Covid world, just as it was after the Industrial Revolution made production more efficient. Striking a balance between life and work can be a never-ending struggle for workers in advanced economies. But as the UAE has demonstrated, governments can innovate to help ease the burden.

Nancy W. Gleason is an associate professor of Practice, Political Science, and director of the Hilary Ballon Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at New York University Abu Dhabi

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