South Africa’s 9-to-5 work day is no longer palatable amid push for shorter work week

The ‘normal’ 9 to 5 is no longer palatable to the upcoming workforce, according to labour experts at law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

The Covid-19 pandemic served as a test run on what the ‘new normal’ has to offer in respect of the employment relationship and some working conditions, it said. “This has resulted in many employers successfully implementing a hybrid working arrangement and, in some instances, even requiring their employees to work from home indefinitely.”

Nedbank chief executive officer, Mike Brown, said this week that the group’s flexible working practices and real-estate optimisation strategy have led to cost savings for the group.

“We have implemented a hybrid work model where a portion of our workforce will continue to work on-site while others will alternate between working on-site and remotely. Although a large part of our workforce is digitally enabled to work remotely, employees are encouraged to return to the office to collaborate and engage,” said Brown.

He said that in the next few years, the lender will continue to optimise the portfolio by enhancing workstation use by enabling flexible office constructs to support more dynamic ways of work, as well as leveraging successful work-from-home experiences as a result of Covid-19, while creating further value and cost reduction opportunities.

“Our optimal workplace distribution mix is expected to settle at around 60% at Nedbank premises and at 40% as a mix of hybrid and permanent work-from-home models to support an anticipated workforce distribution model of 50% full-time on premises, 30% hybrid and 20% permanently off-site,” the chief executive said.

Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr noted many employers have indicated that they have experienced an increase in productivity and less stressed employees.

On the flip side, however, employees have been unable to shut down and find themselves working round the clock and over and above their normal working hours. Considering the above, does this mean that South Africa is ready for a four-day working week?

Countries like Belgium and the UK have been able to implement a four-day working week successfully. However, given that South Africa is highly regulated in respect of its labour and employment laws, it has been argued that it would not be as seamless or easy an exercise to implement in comparison to these countries.

“South Africa has numerous bargaining councils and sectorial agreements that regulate basic conditions of employment in the different sectors and include, inter alia, working hours. To be able to implement a four-day working week model, these agreements will have to be amended, and their terms renegotiated to align with such a model,” Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr said.

Push for a four-day work

Speaking to 702, Mponeng Seshea, the co-founder of Imizizi, a people management HR company, said that a four-day work week would only suit certain industries that can maintain the same productivity levels even with one day less.

Despite conservative office management styles, regulatory hoops and the possibility of pay reductions – Seshea said that a four-day work week is possible but not plausible for everyone.

With hybrid work on the rise post-Covid-19, the debate on remote work, fewer working hours, and flexible workplace management has shifted from an international trend to a domestic reality.

South Africans are demanding more from their jobs with alternative working arrangements leading to some employers indicating that their employees are more productive and less stressed.

Seshea said that a four-day work week is currently best suited for information technology jobs that do not require a lot of interpersonal interaction. Essential job titles such as police officers or hospital staff may not have the same luxury of the option of a four-day workweek.

Professor Dieter von Fintel from the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University told IOL that many jobs in South Africa are characterised by time on task and need workers present even in unproductive moments.

Von Dieter added that most South Africans work in unskilled and semi-skilled occupations, which require time on task and cannot be optimised to fit into four days. This type of job that can be modified to fit into a four-day work week is mostly done by the highly educated, which is a minority in our workforce.

“I don’t think we are ready for this. Because we have such high unemployment, a shorter work week could mean that employers hire more workers for fewer hours,” said Von Dieter.

Seshea argued however that a change to the work week could possibly stimulate employability with a person who takes a day off being replaced with someone that works flexibly or on condition to bridge the gap in productivity left by someone working one day less.

If you think of a production line that in a day needs to produce 30 units with a certain number of people. If you reduce the number of people in the day but still need to meet the same production – you can bring in new people, she said.

Seshea said that a four-day work week would only be optimal for environments where the person in charge is not a micromanager who needs to see their employees every day working. So far, it largely depends on the accountability between the employer and employee.

For it to work, there needs to be trust within the team so that the employer can rest easy knowing that the tasks are getting completed in time, said Seshea.

Legal hurdles

For the four-day work, week to be a reality, not only for a select group, amendments need to be made to South Africa’s labour law. The shortened week can apply to white-collar workers who earn more than R224,000 a year, said Abigail Butcher, an associate in the employment law practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

White-collar workers that earn above the threshold are not bound by the regulations determining working hours in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA). These ‘white collar’ employees are also likely to work in an office environment and have flexibility when it comes to their schedules, Butcher said.

Under the BCEA, the working hours of employees who earn under the ministerial threshold of R224,080 and certain sectors are regulated by a sectoral determination. Companies can also enter into collective agreements with trade unions that regulate working hours, said Butcher.

She said that for there to be a significant change, enough to implement a four-day work week, then this legislation needs to be amended.

Ongoing trial

The UK is currently undergoing the largest four-day work week trial in partnership with researchers at Cambridge University, Boston College and Oxford University. Since its launch in June, the pilot that is set to go on until the end of the year involves 3,300 workers spanning 70 companies.

During the programme, workers receive 100% of their pay for working only 80% of their usual week. Productivity, however, must be maintained at 100%.

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