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The Big Read: Is 4 the new 5? Clamour for 4-day work week but it may not be viable for all

SINGAPORE —  While other employees dive straight into work right after a weekend respite, Ms Nabilah Awang spends her Monday mornings exercising, settling some house chores or “just recharging” herself.

In Singapore, conversations around having more days away from work have picked up steam as employees reevaluate their work-life balance after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted work norms.

Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said in July 2021 that any employer wishing to pilot a four-day work week with their employees may do so, because “there is no legal impediment to implementing such a scheme”.

On the Government’s part, it was prioritising core issues such as uplifting low-wage workers and job creation, among other things, “given the current economic situation”, the minister had said in a written reply to a parliamentary question by Workers’ Party’s Louis Chua on whether the Government had undertaken a study on shorter work weeks.

Last year, Minister of State for Manpower Gan Siow Huang said that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and its partners “strongly encourage employers and employees to be open to flexible work arrangements” to best meet their respective needs, including a four-day work week.

While the MOM had no plans to conduct four-day work week trials here, Ms Gan noted that results from pilots implemented in other countries appeared mixed.

Surveys, including one conducted by TODAY on youths, had shown a growing demand in Singapore for a shorter work week. The interest in such a work arrangement was not without caveats though, with some polls showing that workers were concerned about the manner of its implementation.

Mr Gabriel Nam, a partner at headhunter firm Page Executive, told TODAY this week: “Four-day or 4.5-day work week in theory is always a good and popular thing to do but in reality… it is more complicated than that and there will be a lot of practical and business considerations behind it.”

Such considerations may include costs, lack of manpower and operational complexities in dealing with external partners or clients which expect continuous service beyond four days.

He cited as an example how smaller companies in service industries would find it hard to adopt a four-day work week without potentially losing productivity and competitiveness.  

Agreeing, Mr Samir Bedi of professional services firm EY added: “Moving to a four-day work week does bring concerns over the perceived loss of productivity.”

These concerns could indicate that some companies may be more suited than others to implement shorter work weeks, said business and human resource experts. 

Ultimately, while it is important for employers to adopt a longer-term outlook in implementing new business practices, the end goal to offer better work life balance and make themselves attractive to prospective talents — a key consideration in manpower-scarce Singapore — can be achieved in different ways besides giving workers long weekends, the experts said.

‘YES’ TO SHORTER WEEK BUT CONCERNS REMAIN 

Various polls in recent years indicated a strong interest in a four-day work week, though some surveys found that employees did have some apprehensions about the arrangement.

Three in four respondents of an online survey in June 2022 by recruitment firm Reeracoen said they prefer a four-day work week (of 10 hours each day) to the usual five-day work week (of 8 hours each)Two-thirds of 1,000 respondents aged between 18 and 35 polled by TODAY in September last year agreed or strongly agreed to Singapore moving to a four-day work week, even if it meant working more hours each work dayA separate survey of 1,000 workers here that same month by market research firm Milieu Insight found that 37 per cent wanted a four-day work week “very much”, while another 44 per cent said they “want it, but have a few concerns”

Among the top concerns respondents of the Milieu Insight survey had were urgent tasks or work correspondences spilling into the non-working day, potential salary cuts or the stress of longer work days.

In a more recent poll conducted in March and April, Milieu Insight found eight in 10 workers in Singapore to be very supportive or somewhat supportive of their company participating in a four-day work week trial.

Asked about the possible negative impacts that they believed such a shortened work schedule could bring, the respondents picked lower wages (39 per cent), burnt-out workers (27 per cent) and weaker office culture (25 per cent). 

One in four (26 per cent) of them thought there would not be any negative implications.

Young employees working regular five-day weeks told TODAY recently that they largely welcome the notion of a shorter work week.

However, given that they already frequently work beyond their official hours to complete their tasks, they dread having to stretch their work days even longer to make up for the lost fifth weekday.

MOM data showed that actual hours worked per week had declined marginally from an average of 44.7 in 2017 to 44.3 in 2022 – but they still remained above the global standard 40-hour week.

A data analyst at a bank here, who wanted to be known only as Mr Goh, noted that dividing 40 hours in a four-day week would end up with an 11-hour work day including lunch. 

“For example, 8am to 7pm — that’s a bit extreme for a day of work that is not factoring in commute timings as well,” he said.

One civil servant, who wanted to be known only as Ms Goh, noted how the work of an entity in the Public Service is usually linked to or to support the function of other government-related organisations.

“These entities may already have fixed operating days, so with the reduction of work days, they might be getting the short end of the stick since your support for them will be reduced,” she said.

While proponents of shorter work hours tout increased productivity due to better worker morale, use of technology and better work planning, some employees told TODAY that the problem is not always about the number of work hours one has to put in per se.

Another employee in the public sector who wanted to be known only as Mr Alif said: “I don’t think (any organisation) can be so efficient as to cut down five days’ worth of work to four days by just removing ‘fluff’.” He was referring to administrative and smaller tasks that are not part of an employee’s core job.

“I think the main issue that we should address, and which I don’t think is brought up enough, isn’t the number of work days, but rather the amount of work Singaporeans have to deal with.”

Over at public relations company Mad Hat, its employees enjoy a four-day work week on the last week of each month.

However, as with all PR agency firms, there is still an element of extended work hours, which sometimes spill into the designated long weekend, due to client-stipulated deadlines. Senior account manager Krisha Ramos acknowledged that spillover work is a given in the industry, and it does not diminish the joy she derives from the long weekends.

“In the event that there’s work needed on a Friday, it just means that I can clear that on my time and target without distraction or interruptions (as opposed to having an official workday Friday),” said the 29-year old, who has eight years’ experience in the industry.

The “spontaneous long weekend getaways on a regular basis” and extra time for her to pursue her hobbies have allowed her to achieve better work-life balance, she said.

SOME SUCCESSFUL CASE STUDIES BUT NO GLOBAL NORM

While much of the conversation surrounding a shorter work week and better work-life balance could be traced back to the Covid-19 disruption which began in early 2020, Microsoft Japan was one notable company that was already experimenting with the four-day work before the pandemic. It ran a one-month trial by giving its employees long weekends in August 2019 and reported a 40 per cent jump in productivity, despite the cut in work hours from 40 to 32. 

Panasonic, another multinational headquartered in workaholic Japan, introduced an optional four day-work week in early 2022.

Elsewhere, 4 Day Work Week Global, a non-profit based in the United Kingdom advocating for the implementation of four-day work weeks, has reported largely positive results from companies participating in trials that it has helped to organise since last year.

In February, the organisation reported 56 of 61 companies in the UK that piloted the shortened work schedule from June to December 2022 decided to continue with the practice, with 18 of the companies making it a permanent policy.

Employees reported improvements in their overall well-being, including mental and physical health. Meanwhile, employers benefited from a decline in worker absenteeism and turnover rates and a stable revenue despite the cut in total work hours.

Such pilots have since been expanded to companies in other countries, with largely positive results.

According to 4 Day Week Global, the participating companies had implemented different methods of working time reduction with one objective in mind: “Meaningful” reduction in work time for employees with no pay cut.

Besides the straightforward long weekend arrangement in some companies, staff at other firms take the additional day off in a staggered manner to ensure the company’s services continue over five weekdays.

Other businesses, such as restaurants, may require its staff to work longer hours for certain periods but compensate for it by giving them shorter working hours during the lull season, resulting in an average 32-hour work week overall.

In Singapore, business, human resource and labour experts told TODAY that it might be challenging to shorten work days in a similar manner here, at least in the near future.

The last time Singapore made a drastic change in its official work hours was when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in 2004 that the civil service would pivot from an alternate five-and-a-half-day work week to a five-day one.

Labour economist Walter Theseira, from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), noted however that the move involved redistributing the hours on Saturday across the weekdays to roughly retain the total number of working hours per week in the civil service.

Mr Nam of Page Executive added: “It is often argued that working half day on Saturday usually is not very productive and therefore the concerns raised at that time were not as much.”

Both pointed out that by the time Singapore implemented the five-day work week, the majority of the global economies had already done so.

Thus, it cannot be used as a direct comparison when contemplating a four-day work week here, given that the practice, both in the public and private sectors, has yet to become a global norm.

Associate Professor Trevor Yu from Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University, however, said that pandemic-related developments may help Singapore to make further changes to its work practices.

“Our experience with work from home and flexible work arrangements proliferating during the pandemic suggests that it would actually be easier now to make a shift to a shorter work week compared to before,” he said.

Timing aside, some business experts noted that small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) form a significant bulk of employers here.

Being typically more resource-strapped than international companies, SMEs might have less manpower and resources to move around when trying to implement a change in their work practices, and hence might feel any loss of man-hour more acutely, said the experts.

SUSS’ Assoc Prof Theseira also noted how, as it is, companies here tend to be more conservative even in implementing other flexi-work arrangements.

“There is a culture that exists in Singapore and in some other countries of needing to show your face in office… If your boss doesn’t see you in office, then sorry, he or she thinks ‘oh, this person is not contributing’,” he said, adding that this may be due to employers not knowing how to best measure productivity and instead base it on the number of hours an employee is physically present. 

Thus, he said that it would take some time before Singapore starts seeing companies embracing more significant changes in work practices like shortening of work hours.

Some companies may also be concerned that voluntarily cutting their own man-hours may put them at a disadvantage when their competitors have not done so, the experts said.

Nonetheless, they added that whatever apprehensions employers may have need to be considered against longer term goals.

Mr Kenji Naito, group chief executive officer of recruitment firm Reeracoen, said: “Concerns about increased costs may be valid, but they must be balanced against potential gains in productivity and employee satisfaction.

“The transition to a four-day work week should be seen as a long-term strategy that can yield benefits over time.”

Agreeing, Mr Bedi of professional services firm EY said: “Research and pilot programmes have shown that with technology and innovation, moving to a shorter work week is actually beneficial to the organisation and its employees in the long run.”

He added that should the trend of shorter work weeks continues and competitors have adopted it, “it can impact the (Singapore) company’s attractiveness to talent” should it be slow to adopt the same practices. 

FOUR-DAY GOOD, FLEXI BETTER?

Challenges notwithstanding, some companies here have implemented variations of the four-day work week to different degrees and with varying results.

Real estate portal firm PropertyGuru Group began rolling out a range of flexible work arrangements for its Singapore and Malaysia teams in early 2021.

Among the arrangements offered is a Compressed Work Week, that allows staff to work four-day weeks or nine-day fortnights.

“Our Gurus (employees) can work full hours (40 hours per week) over a shorter number of days with no difference in pay in accordance with their role requirements and in consultation with their managers,” chief people officer Helen Snowball told TODAY.

“We also offer ‘Part-Time Work’ scheme through which employees can work fewer days and hours per week for pro-rated pay.”

The firm did not respond to questions on the take-up rate of such schemes and how they impact productivity. However, Ms Snowball said that PropertyGuru intends to expand the scope of the programme to its other offices in the region.

Like PropertyGuru, Mad Hat, the PR firm, also intends to scale up its shortened work week arrangement, said Ms Danielle Chow, its country lead for Singapore.

“Currently we practise no-meeting Fridays, and one Mad Long Weekend per month, typically the last weekend in a month. We hope to phase into two monthly Mad Long Weekends in 2024,” said Ms Chow, referring to the long weekend practice.

While the company embarked on the work arrangement sometime last year to “boost morale, job satisfaction, and overall retention rates”, it has positively impacted the team’s work, she said.

“This tends to lead to a lot more intentionality in the way we work, being clear on how we are investing our ‘work’ time, and the levels of increased productivity and creative output speaks volumes,” said Ms Chow.

Meanwhile, F&B establishment Coriander Leaf started the four-day work week arrangement sometime in 2021 partly because it had a hard time hiring F&B professionals as business resumed after pandemic-related restrictions eased.

“We believed this flexible working arrangement would give us a competitive advantage for recruiting the right talent,” said its chief executive officer Rajeev Panjwani.

However, the restaurant found it challenging to offer the same arrangement to existing employees without compromising its operations.

“(Over time), we quickly realised that team members were actually looking for flexible work arrangements to balance their career and personal commitments, and not just a shortened work week,” said Mr Rajeev.

Coriander Leaf has since offered a range of work arrangements to better fit both the employees’ and the company’s needs.

This means some employees are on a shortened work-week while others are on shortened work hours and permanent work timings.

Still, there are business owners who find it difficult to implement a more flexible or a four-day work week, despite knowing that such arrangements would be good for their employees.

For example, cybersecurity talent development company Red Alpha offers a rigorous six-month full-time training programme with remuneration that averages 43 hours a week. 

“To accommodate a four-day week, that would be a 10- to 11-hour day for our trainees, which would be extremely tiring for them and may affect the learning outcomes, on top of being unsustainable to the well-being of our trainees,” said the firm’s chief executive, Benjamin Tan.

“For trainers, it is more effective for them to follow through with the students on specific modules, rather than stagger them for the sake of a four-day week, which would compromise learning outcomes.”

SHORTER WORK WEEK NOT BE ALL, END ALL

For some companies, the transition to shorter work weeks may be made easier if they can adopt high-productivity practices — and the Government can help with the latter by offering subsidies or grants, experts told TODAY.

However, they also acknowledged that a four-day-work-week solution may not be applicable to all businesses or industries.

It would thus be unrealistic to expect the Government to implement such a policy nationwide.

“While many industries can adapt to shorter work weeks, those that rely heavily on physical presence or customer service may face more significant challenges. Industries with highly specialised roles may also need to find creative solutions,” said Mr Naito of Reeracoen.

Even the biggest trial of shorter-work week practices in the UK facilitated by 4 Day Week Global saw companies implementing different ways of shortening work hours tailored to their respective operational needs, the experts noted.

With Singaporeans, by and large, still working longer than the expected 40-hour week, experts said that the big shift to a four-day week might not be likely.

“For Singapore, a transition to a 4.5-day work week may be more realistic given our (work) culture,” said Mr Bedi, who is Asean workforce advisory leader at EY. 

“And it requires the participation of the entire ecosystem — including workers, businesses, unions, trade associations and chambers and the Government.”

Assoc Prof Theseira from SUSS said that as things stand currently, one of the more immediate things that can be worked on to improve workers’ welfare is “bringing work hours more in line with the statutory norm to begin with, rather than straight jumping into four days (work week)”.

He added that employees can be offered more time away from work not necessarily by cutting down the number of days in a work week, but through giving additional leave and time-off entitlements and other flexible work arrangements. 

Ultimately, a four-day work week is not the be all, end all.

“It cannot be assumed that once this policy is implemented, the staff will be automatically happy,” said Mr Nam of Page Executive.

Agreeing, Assoc Prof Yu of NTU said: “It would only succeed if a high level of trust exists between management and employees, where autonomy, empowerment, and flexibility are essential attributes of work culture in place of presenteeism and micromanagement.”  

On the other hand, if not implemented properly, shortening the work week may lead to workers experiencing more stress from having to complete the same amount of work under tighter time constraints.

“It is a bit counter-intuitive, as the purpose of a shorter work week is to promote work-life balance,” said Mr Nam. 

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