Henry Ford’s decision to introduce the five-day workweek in 1926 was largely met with ridicule, as employees of Ford Motor Company became among the first in the US to deviate from the then entrenched six-day workweek.
The rest, as they say, is history and almost a century on from Ford’s groundbreaking move, another potential restructuring of work has already begun in earnest.
More than 3,300 employees at 70 UK companies are currently undergoing a trial to test the feasibility of a four-day workweek. Running for six months, the pilot project is based on the 100:80:100 model, where employees retain 100% of their pay working 80% of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100% productivity.
In Asia, the debate around the four-day workweek has, perhaps predictably, drawn mixed responses. Following the example of Panasonic to offer employees a four-day workweek, the Japan government has thrown its support behind a proposal to let employees choose a four-day workweek, citing the need to improve employees’ work-life balance.
In the Philippines, the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) has said that the decision to introduce a four-day workweek or not is entirely up to the discretion of organisations. “We can only encourage, not obligate the private sector to adopt four-day workweeks,” said DOLE.
On the other end of the spectrum, the SME Association of Malaysia has opposed the four-day workweek, citing low productivity and labour problems. Fewer work hours, the business lobby group argues, will result in less output and higher cost for businesses.
Is a four-day workweek then, a distinct possibility or merely a pipe dream? Before this question can be definitively answered, organisations should have a clear understanding of the reasons why they should be even considering implementing a four-day workweek.
Is it to allow employees to have more time to spend with their loved ones and to pursue personal interests and engage in activities that will improve their wellbeing and mental health?
In return, are organisations getting more engaged, committed, and productive employees in the long run?
Much will also depend on how organisations interpret a four-day workweek. Does it equate to employees working the same hours for a reduced salary? Will employees be expected to work longer hours to compensate for the extra off-day and should they be expected to be in ‘always-on’ mode, particularly those who continue to work remotely?
In an ideal world, the 100:80:100 model is an attractive proposition that meets the needs of the organisation and their employees. After all, employees are paid the same salary to spend less time working, while employers continue to see favourable business results because of a more productive workforce.
The reality, however, is not so straightforward. While it may seem implausible to find many employees who are resistant to a four-day workweek if it means having to work less for the same salary, employees who are already overburdened with work may not be receptive to the idea of having to catch up on work on what will be newly designated as a non-working day.
For organisations looking to introduce a four-day workweek that mandates a salary reduction, the resistance or pushback from employees can be expected to be more significant.
With the introduction of a four-day workweek likely to be a generational transition that will have far-reaching implications, the importance of operational planning cannot be understated.
Organisations need to speak with employees to understand their concerns and how they feel about a restructured workweek. Careful thought and scrutiny need to be put in place to study the sustainability of a four-day workweek for the organisation, and whether a more measured approach is required to create a more bespoke working model for each individual employee.
As Tim Sackett highlights in this issue when referring to flexible work, there has been a regrettable longevity of HR policies that have sought to treat all employees as the same. In the continuously evolving world of work today, a one-size-fits-all approach no longer works, and this is inclusive of any discussion around the concept of a four-day workweek.
Instead of making any decision a hasty or arbitrary one, business and HR leaders will be well-served to spend more time deliberating on what will work best for not only their organisation, but their employees as well.
By Shawn Liew, Senior Journalist of HRM Asia. This article was first published in HRM Magazine Asia Aug/Sep 2022 issue.