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The Big Read in short: Is a 4-day work week as good as it sounds?

SINGAPORE —  While other employees dive straight into work right after a short weekend respite, Ms Nabilah Awang spends her Monday mornings exercising, settling some house chores or “just recharging” by herself after two days of spending quality time with her family.

WHY IT MATTERS

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 a written parliamentary reply 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”.

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.

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.  

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.

THE BIG PICTURE

Mr Gabriel Nam, partner at headhunter firm Page Executive, told TODAY: “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.

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

Young employees working regular five-day weeks told TODAY 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.

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.

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.”

THE BOTTOMLINE

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 Kenji Naito of recruitment firm Reeracoen.

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 Samir Bedi of professional services firm EY. 

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

Associate Professor Walter Theseira, a labour economist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, 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, Associate Professor Trevor Yu of Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University 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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