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The work hours-based productivity myth

08 Dec 2021

In a landmark development, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week announced a shift to a four-and-a-half-day work week, i.e. from Monday morning to Friday afternoon, for the country’s federal entities, starting from January of next year. This plan also includes giving employees the opportunity to opt for flexible working hours and work-from-home options on Fridays. The aim of this initiative, as mentioned by that country’s authorities, is to boost productivity by strengthening the workers’ work-life balance, which developed countries have identified as a factor that plays a major role in productivity and efficiency. While embracing shorter work weeks with the aim of reducing work-related stress and thereby boosting productivity is something the world has been discussing for some time, pilot projects launched by some countries and businesses for the same have borne fruit. Among the countries that paid attention to such pilot initiatives are Iceland, Spain, New Zealand, and Japan, and a four-day work week had, according to studies, resulted in a 25-40% increase in productivity. As far as the workers’ experiences are concerned, results of those pilot projects have shown that shortening the work week had significantly improved the work-life balance, reduced the need to take sick leave, and lessened grievances pertaining to stress. Some media reports also claimed that certain businesses that launched such pilot projects had recorded a reduction in the number of people obtaining counselling provided by the workplace. The working people have always been one of the integral forces that propel a nation forward, and Sri Lanka’s workforce has a massive role when it comes to rebuilding the nation burdened with debts, losses, and waste. However, there is a serious question whether we are handling our workforce correctly, because Sri Lanka’s idea of developing the human resource, sometimes, is confined to ensuring good physical working conditions, which may not necessarily give workers psychological satisfaction.  Being stuck in traditional ideas about the concept of employment and also satisfaction among employees (related to salary and bonus, and promotions) and employers (more and better work from employees) has hindered the development of a work culture which focuses on balancing the work life-personal life dynamic. For example, most workplaces in Sri Lanka still assign an undue importance to employees being physically or virtually available for the full duration of the work hours. While the nature of some jobs may require such commitment, sometimes, we can see similar rules in effect in workplaces where the duration of work hours does not have an impact on the performance of an employee. In some cases, employees do not even have the opportunity of being available virtually, and they are required to physically report to work, even when there is no work. Unfortunately, workplaces being driven by such outdated ideas affect modern concepts such as working from home as well. A good example is some employees having to be logged into office networks for the full duration.  Even though Sri Lankan firms have begun to adopt more flexible work hours and performance-based assessments instead of attendance-based assessments, that progress is at a snail’s pace. It is high time that we look at other countries, or truly developing or developed countries, that have understood and proved that having a massive workforce is neither the only nor the most decisive factor that decides the level of efficiency and productivity. Unlike Sri Lanka, progressive countries have acknowledged the concept of improving workers to improve productivity. However, working from home or flexible work hours has not always been beneficial to employees. While some people tend to work more when working from home, not having a sign out time has resulted in employers contacting employees, and sometimes assigning work, in late hours, with no regard to the employees’ wellbeing. Moreover, employees having to use personal devices and data, and not being compensated for such, are other issues. Therefore, if Sri Lanka is to promote less or flexible work hours, and also working from home, beyond the Covid-19 pandemic period, there must be a mechanism to address these realities as well. As a matter of fact, in a context where a considerable segment of the county’s workforce has become familiar with flexible work hours and days as well as working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, taking such initiatives is much easier now. However, more than resources, this will require a great deal of ideological and attitudinal changes.

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