The new workweek for the UAE’s public sector came into effect on January 1. The directive saw the country’s federal government entities transition into a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday forming the new weekend.
Federal government employees were also granted remote working options and flexible working hours on Friday. From an economic standpoint, the directive aimed to better align the country with global markets as well as foster stronger international business links. Additionally, the revised structure would help underpin work-life balance and enhance wellbeing.
Private sector companies were not required to follow suit, although a significant number of them did. Katy Holmes, general manager, British Business Group Dubai and Northern Emirates (BBG), opines that while it was, of course, optional for the private sector to adopt the new working week pattern but as schools went Monday to Friday, the private sector had to align to accommodate working parents. “Given the speed at which the announcement and implementation took place, we are sure to see a period of adjustment supported by the new labor law’s acceptance of flexible working and home working.”
Samantha Ellaby, legal director, Clyde & Co, says: “Private sector employers are under no obligation to move to a Monday to Friday working week. However, there are clearly advantages in doing so including being aligned with the global markets and better facilitating trade and transactions with the majority of countries outside of the region.”
The new directive also offers an impetus to those who were keen to recalibrate their work-life balance in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite private sector entities being given a choice to adjust their working model, 79 per cent of UAE-based respondents in a recent YouGov survey said that their organization has transitioned to the new workweek policy. Of these, 47 per cent claim to follow a four-and-a-half-day workweek, while 53 per cent have adopted the new five-day workweek, the study – which reviewed 1,026 people in the UAE – revealed.
Ellaby says: “There is no legal obligation on private sector employers to follow the model adopted in the public sector by adopting a shorter working week, although clearly employers need to be sensitive to the importance of attending Friday prayers for Muslim employees. I’ve seen private sector companies taking a range of approaches in this regard – some operating a half-day on a Friday and some allowing an extended lunch break on a Friday. Where working hours are reduced on a Friday, private sector companies will need to consider a number of issues, such as whether there will be a commensurate reduction in pay or whether employees will be required to make up the hours. Changes of this nature will typically require express employee consent. Policies may also need updating.”
But the key question remains: How has the decision impacted the workforce? Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and founder of The LightHouse Arabia, an accredited provider of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training in the UAE, suggests it is too soon to tell if employee wellbeing has been positively or negatively impacted by the new workweek. “From what we have heard, the initial response to the new week is split. Some people and many children were optimistic about the new week, while others felt added stress due to several factors, including having to cope with a new change amidst all the other changes they’ve had to contend with in the past two years. This involves having to consider childcare on Fridays since their companies have not shifted to a 4.5-day workweek along with schools, having increased workload since countries in the region and some companies are still on a Friday/Saturday weekend – this means many people went from a five-day week to a six-day week, as they have to work on Sundays, and the grievance associated with the loss of Friday rituals they have had for many years.”
The departure from a conventional working week to a truncated one isn’t radically new. Several countries and organizations around the world have either adopted or trialled a shortened work structure. Two trials of shorter working hours were initiated in Iceland from 2015 to 2019 involving over 2,500 workers, a report by UK-based Autonomy and Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy (Alda), revealed.
The trials – in which workers transitioned from a 40-hour to a 35- or 36-hour week, without reduced pay – were successful. Participants took on lesser hours and relished greater wellbeing as well as better cooperative spirit in the workplace. By June 2021, 86 per cent of Iceland’s working population were on contracts that had either moved them to shorter working hours or gave them the right to do so in the future, the report added. Meanwhile, employees across Belgium will also be able to request for a four-day workweek under recent labor reforms.
One step down, organizations around the world have also taken similar measures for tipping the scale towards greater work-life balance. Towards the end of 2020, Unilever New Zealand announced that it would trial a four-day workweek, allowing participating employees to retain full salaries, while working 80 per cent of the time. The group CEO of Panasonic also said earlier this year that the company aimed to introduce an optional four-day workweek, to flexibly accommodate employees.
Environmental concerns, which are fast gaining ground, also offer an impetus for a curtailed work regime. A report commissioned by the 4 Day Week campaign from Platform London revealed that transitioning to a four-day working week without loss of pay could reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025.
Barring the UAE, countries across the GCC continue to operate on a Sunday-Thursday workweek. However, a local shift could arguably morph into a regional rethink of how work going ahead could look like. If that were to hold true, could this be the beginning of a broader movement? Holmes explains: “The UAE has once again demonstrated progressive steps to align itself with much of the rest of the world and with this change in working week it is further amplifying its status as a global business hub. Companies in the UK will feel the difference in a positive way – no longer restricted for calls on a Friday and for those companies with client commitments across the GCC, we know through our survey that they are managing with either a six-day week or dividing their workforce in shifts to cover the requirements.” Whether the local directive leads to a broader regional movement remains to be seen.