UAE becomes first country to introduce shorter working week

By Kate Birch
The United Arab Emirates has made workplace history announcing the transition to a four-and-a-half-day working week, in a bid to boost work-life balance

With this transition, it becomes the first nation worldwide to introduce a national working week that’s shorter than the global five-day week.

The UAE is moving federal government employees to a four-and-a-half day work week in order to “boost productivity and improve work-life balance”, the government announced in a statement.

Along with this shorter working week, the country has also announced changes to working hours, to start and finish earlier, as well as a shift in the country’s weekend to adapt to the western norm.

The new working week, effective January 1, 2022, will run from Monday until Thursday, 7.30am to 3.30pm, and on Friday from 7.30am to 12pm.

From an economic perspective, the country's new Saturday/Sunday weekend will align the UAE with global markets and will “ensure smooth financial, trade and economic transactions with countries that follow a Saturday-Sunday weekend, facilitating stronger international business links and opportunities for thousands of UAE-based and multinational companies”.

While the rules only apply to the public sector at this time, the expectation is that the private sector will follow suit.

Recent UAE labour law changes to create more flexible working

These changes follow a raft of recent game-changing government-level adaptations to work practice in the UAE, with the country recently making significant changes to its labour law.

This includes the introduction of flexible working practices for expats for the first time with businesses allowed to introduce new working models, including freelancing, shared roles and self-employment.

Employees can benefit from a condensed working week, for example, and choose to finish their 40 hours in three days instead of in one week; or participate in a job-share arrangement where pay is split between two people.

Not only does this give employees more flexibility in the way they wish to work, but it benefits businesses as they can harness different talents and competencies and have a larger talent pool to choose from. 

"We aim to create an environment that attracts talents and competencies from all over the world and enhance the future skills of workers, at the same time providing a stimulating and attractive working environment for employers," said Dr Abdulrahman Al Awar, Minister of Human Resources and Emiratisation.

Other countries considering shorter week – from Iceland to India

A number of other countries have been considering the four-day week. Iceland was first off of the shorter working week blocks with researchers having run trials, in which employees worked four-day weeks but were paid the same amount, between 2015 and 2019.

Similar trials are set to take place in Spain and Scotland. Spain’s government has signed off on a three year €50m pilot project to fund businesses who introduce a four-day working week and the Scottish government is currently designing a similar pilot programme that’s set to trial across a number of office-based businesses in the country. 

Other countries have put proposals on the table. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party put forward a proposal to allow workers to opt for shorter workweeks giving them time to upskill and meet caring responsibilities; while the Indian government is finalising rules that could give companies the flexibility to reduce days to four.

However, the UAE is the first country worldwide to officially put a plan in place. 

Businesses introduce four-day working week, as productivity levels increase

Individual businesses and organisations within countries are taking the plunge too, with many piloting programmes throughout the pandemic and subsequently realising the positive effects – increased productivity and healthier, happier employees.

Unilever is undertaking a year-long pilot of a four-day week with its New Zealand employees, a move it hopes will boost productivity and improve happiness. And if it does, the company will roll it out to 150,000 employees worldwide.

In July/August 2021, Big Four firm PwC in the UK allowed employees a reduced working day at the end of the week, to clock off around lunchtime. And just last month, digital bank Atom Bank became the largest UK firm to adopt a four-day working week, to “provide our employees with more opportunities to pursue their passions, spend time with their families, and a build a healthier work/life balance”, says the bank’s CEO Mark Mullen.

And many firms have proven the productivity theory to be true. Spanish company Software Delsol became the first firm in Spain to implement a four-day working week in 2020 and as a result saw a reduction in absenteeism, an increase in productivity and happier workers. While in Asia, Microsoft Japan experimented with the four-day week. The result? Happier workers and 40% greater efficiency.

Which company or country will be next? Watch this space.


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