Talent: Gen Z and the four-day workweek

By Robert Willock, MENA director

For those of you unfortunate enough to miss our event last week on Talent: Gen Z and the Four-Day Working Week, I thought I should provide an update.

The feeling I got from the senior executives in the room on Thursday was that, if a private-sector four-day working week is going to be initiated anywhere in the world, it will be here in the UAE.

The country’s public sector workers are already working a 4.5-day week, since the weekend changed from Friday-Saturday to Saturday-Sunday at the start of 2022, to accommodate Muslim Friday prayer time. And Sharjah’s government employees don’t work on Fridays at all, in a move that the emirate’s executive council claims has led to significant improvements in staff happiness, mental health, attendance, communication, creativity and productivity. 

That might come as a surprise to many of the respondents to our recent EICN talent survey, the results of which I presented last week in this slide deck. Concerns about a negative effect on productivity were one of the main reasons given by senior business leaders for not considering a four-day working week, alongside competitive pressures and the sense that the nature of their business simply wouldn’t allow it.

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But as automation and artificial intelligence promise to create significant efficiencies in many spheres of work, is it not reasonable to think that businesses could either employ fewer people, or the same number of people for fewer hours?

This is certainly in line with the thinking of the next generation of employees – Generation Zs. Some 83% of the Gen Zs responding to our survey said they would prefer to work four days a week rather than five. Meanwhile, 81% of business leaders who currently operate a five-day working week said they are not considering operating a four-day working week, though that number falls to 74% among business leaders in the Middle East and Africa. So a quarter of ‘you’ are considering it, either permanently or as an experiment.

We all know the one thing that will force the issue, as it did with the weekend change. If UAE schools move to a four-day week, the private sector will almost invariably have to follow! Which would also potentially remove some of those competitive concerns – or the “first-mover disadvantage”, as it was characterised. “We’d prefer not to take the lead with this experiment,” was one comment from a survey respondent.

“But what if it proved to be a significant first-mover advantage?” was the counterpoint. After all, among the small proportion of businesses that operate or have experimented with a four-day working week (about one in 12), 80% consider the initiative to have been a success. The top three measured benefits were reported as: a happier workforce; improved staff retention; and higher levels of productivity.

I sensed that our discussion on this topic last week could have gone on for a long time, so thank you to my excellent panelists Tarek Lotfy of Mercer, Betül Yalçın Emlek of KFC, Matthew Lewis of Russell Reynolds Associates and Monica Hernandez Alarcon of General Motors for sharing their great insights. 

I’d be fascinated to continue this debate with EICN members, so please do provide me with your own thoughts on this subject, especially if you are operating, experimenting with or considering a four-day working week in your own business.

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