When the four-day week trial started, there was a healthy scepticism about whether it could work in South Africa.
This question was raised in other countries too but in the case of South Africa there was a concern that the existing issue of low productivity would hamper the organisations wish to do more with less. So, what did we find?
The organisations that succeeded in implementing the four-day week reported a clear boost in productivity as in most cases, employees managed to achieve the same output with reduced working times.
In effect they produced 100% of their previous output with fewer hours – in some cases they even produced more than before.
The results show that across the 27 companies reporting data on the pilot, there was an overwhelming positive effect.
On a scale of one to ten managers reported a score of 7.8 for the impact on the company overall and 7.2 for company performance. Importantly the score for productivity was 7.5. Likewise, other pilots around the world reported similar positive effects for productivity.
From the interactions with participants, it appears that a four-day week results in greater productivity. Employees are able to produce greater output in four days compared to what they would usually produce in five days. This tends to be achieved through the reorganisation of work, streamlining of business processes, a focus on using time productively, and better use of technologies.
Most organisations who opted for a four-day week redesigned key business processes, invested in software, and/or eliminated non-value-added work (for example, routine meetings) to make sure that there were no productivity losses once they switched over to a four-day week. We found organisations used the opportunity to better deploy existing technology or to quickly implement technologies. The technology was often well received as it was seen as a means to improve productivity and thus support the continuation of the four-day week.
Higher perceived productivity can also be attributed to employees perhaps working a little harder so that they do not risk losing the privilege of working a four-day week if their productivity decreased. As one manager put it “you know that you have a team of motivated employees who would do their level best to ensure productivities are maximised and to ensure that performance is as expected from them.”
While a four-day week may be linked to higher productivity, it is important to keep in mind that the pilot participants were from the services sector – mainly professional services and ICT. We cannot make any inferences or generalisations about productivity-related benefits of a four-day week in a production environment just yet.
The four-day week is not a panacea for all challenges organisations face. As one manager put it "As a team, we're definitely more productive, but the income is lower compared to last year's figures. But that has got to do with the industry change, not necessarily the four-day work week.”
For those organisations reporting more productive and successful periods, this does not mean the four-day week made the organisations more successful per se. What it does demonstrate is that some organisations were able to grow and expand sales while using the four-day working week models.
The productivity increases of the companies mean that for a country like South Africa, with very high levels of unemployment and low levels of formal employment, the four-day week should not be thought of as a policy or practice to address job shortages. The same number of people producing the same output with few hours means that organisations are not recruiting more.
On the other hand, what the results do mean is that it is possible to address low levels of productivity, particularly in service activities where productivity is difficult to measure and productivity gains are hard to implement. Such advances could help the competitivity of some South African firms. The next challenge is to see if these productivity gains can be maintained and rolled out to other areas of the economy.
Tasneem Motala is a Senior Lecturer: Operations Management at Stellenbosch Business School and one of the researchers who reviewed South Africa’s first four-day work week trial.