If you gave attention to the major news outlets of late, you would no doubt have heard that there is a drive to test and consider a 4 day working week. This seems to be a consequence of what businesses learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid changes that were implemented for personnel, who eventually found the "work from anywhere" regime more palatable than the traditional office grind.

Major changes happened in the working place over the past almost 3 years. Businesses sent their staff home and managed (mostly) to keep the wheels turning whilst a large complement of normally office based people worked from their homes. After the pandemic, the more progressive businesses adapted to a so-called hybrid working protocol, where the staff only come to the office for short periods and for certain specific purposes – for the rest they are left to work in the comfort of their own homes (or local coffee shops, or even whilst touring the country). There are instances where the relevant staff have been allowed to work from home indefinitely.

Research widely spread seems to indicate that employees report an uptake in productivity and a reduction of stress and anxiety, for those who are allowed to work elsewhere than the office. Of course there is another side to the arrangement – certain employees who worked from home struggle to find a balance between when they should be working and when not – they often work much longer hours and struggle to shut off from working mode. Depression and anxiety may follow for those employees who work from home.

There are countries where reduced working days in a week (a 4 day working week) have been implemented and it seems to bear fruit. The United Kingdom and Belgium reported good outcomes. The question is whether such a shift has a chance of success in South Africa.

The first challenge is how highly regulated the labour sector in South Africa is. There are various pieces of legislation to take into account, there are numerous bargaining councils and collective / sectoral agreements which regulate the conditions of employees in the different industries or sectors. To enable a 4 day working week would involve extensive and wide negotiations to amend the agreements and possible legislation.

Employers will not be able to willy-nilly make changes to the terms of employment of its staff complement and the duty to follow processes is onerous. There will have to be consultation with various stakeholders, such as trade unions, workplace forums and individual staff members.

If no consensus is reached to change the terms of employment, the employer may be taken to task for making unilateral changes, which will likely result in employees or unions on their behalf, referring disputes to bargaining councils, the CCMA or the Labour Court.

Further, the regulatory framework for a new working model will have to be considered and likely necessitate the need for legislative amendments, as mentioned earlier. One important issue may be the occupational health and safety of employees who work shorter and compressed work weeks. The employers need to take every reasonable step to ensure the safety of its employees while working – and this applies to those who work from home as well. It is not hard to imagine that this could be an overwhelming task for certain employers.

Conceptually a shorter working week sounds great, but each employer will have to carefully consider the particular sector, circumstances and requirements which apply to it. It has to ensure that the new model will be practicable and feasible. Some factors, such as the mentioned legislative regime in our country, are not in any single employer's control.

It may be too early for South Africa to embrace a 4 day working week right now. Certainly there are businesses and groups who are and will test the proposed model. There is value in keeping a keen eye on these projects and to learn from them. Just maybe we will be convinced to change our traditional ways for the better.

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