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The surprising results of South Africa’s four-day work week trial

Picture: Anastasiia Yanishevska/Dreamstime
Picture: Anastasiia Yanishevska/Dreamstime

The first trial of the four-day work week in a developing country — and the first in Africa — has shown “huge benefits” for both employees and employers, researchers say.

As many as 26 companies and 470 of their employees participated in the six-month trial in South Africa, which was overseen by 4 Day Week Global, as well as the non-profit’s local arm and researchers at Boston College and Stellenbosch Business School.

Participants included consulting firms IQbusiness and KLA, and tech company Big Beard Web Solutions, among others.

The idea behind the truncated work week — pioneered by New Zealand-based financial services group Perpetual Guardian — is that employees cut their weekly working hours by 20% but maintain full pay.

In exchange for that better work-life balance, staff must deliver at least the same output as they did previously. This can be achieved by wasting less time in unnecessary meetings, among other measures, according to the thesis.

In many cases, companies that have gone this route still operate five-day weeks, but their staff take different days off from one another.

The results of the South African trial defied scepticism, according to the researchers behind it.

Among the findings:

  • 92% of the companies that participated say they “definitely” plan to continue with the four-day week or are considering it. Among the reported benefits were an increase in productivity, better employee retention (resignation rates were down 11%, on average), and decreased absenteeism (a 9% average decline).
  • More than half (51%) of the participating employees say they’d need a substantial pay hike to revert to a five-day week at their next job. And 13% say that no amount of money would get them to return to the traditional work week.
  • Employees reported decreased stress, burnout, and fatigue, and said they spent more time with family and exercising, among other benefits.

“The four-day week presents the rare combination of benefits for both employees and employers by enhancing wellbeing, productivity, and work organisation,” Stellenbosch Business School’s Professor Mark Smith, who co-led the research, said in a statement.

The South African results reflect similar outcomes to previous studies in other markets, albeit with some country-specific nuances, Smith added.

Tasneem Motala, a senior lecturer at Stellenbosch Business School, said there was clear evidence of improved productivity rates.

“Employees are able to produce a greater output in four days compared to what they would usually produce in five days,” Motala said, adding that participating companies redesigned key business processes, invested in software that aided productivity, and/or eliminated “non-value added work”.

Professor Juliet Schor of Boston College said an important outcome was that participants didn’t experience an increase in the “intensity” of work. “This suggests that the work reorganisation strategy succeeded, and performance was not achieved via speedup, which is neither sustainable nor desirable.”

Yes, but: All participating companies operate in the business services sector, so it’s unclear whether the benefits would translate into other industries.

“It is important to recognise that there is a clear absence of businesses from other sectors such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing, which together constitute some of the largest employers in South Africa,” law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr said in a research note. “The efficacy of a four-day work week in these industries is uncertain.”

A second trial, which The Progress Playbook will participate in, will launch in early 2024.

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