Would the six-hour workday be successful in Dubai?

With Sweden shifting to six-hour workdays, here at EDGAR we looked at if it would be achievable in the GCC.

James Reynolds October 20, 2015

The monotonous 40-hour workweek has become such a staple of the modern, developed world, that it seems hard to imagine life without it.

But over in Sweden, a retirement home has been trialling a six-hour workday, with positive results – efficiency and staff wellbeing are up, although turnover is down. As a result, the city of Gothenburg has stepped up to try out the six-hour workday, as the country aims to boost productivity, as well as try to achieve a more successful work-life balance.

Despite this, it’s hard to think how an experiment such as this one could be beneficial to Dubai. Is it possible that such a scheme could work in the UAE, with staff working fewer official hours, whilst still getting paid the same amount?

Well, to help understand the six hour workday and its benefits, we need to take a step back and see why we even had the typical ‘9 till 5’ workday in the first place. That too was once seen as a long-shot idea, before becoming the norm across the world. 

During the early 1800s, up until 1916, workers had to put up with gruelling 12-14 hour days, six days a week. In 1810, Robert Owen, an American socialist proposed the idea of an eight-hour working day. However, it wasn’t until 1938 that it became the legal standard for a 40 hour work week, when the then president of America, Roosevelt, passed the Fair Labors Standards Act.

Originally, the average workweek was set up to coincide with the amount of hours of light in a day. It was also arranged to allow workers a day-off each week to suit their religion, with Muslim countries having Fridays off, Christian countries having Sunday as the day of rest, and Jewish countries having their Saturdays spare. 

It was in America that the two day weekend was developed, as a high number of Jewish people worked for banks, which meant a lot of business transitions were put on hold, causing non-Jewish residents to take the day off too, as well as their own religious day off. Eventually this brought an end to the six-day working week. 

However, It wasn’t until Henry Ford discovered that workers’ production actually increased during an eight-hour workday, that the rest of the world clocked on and used the same schedule.

Now it appears history could be repeating itself as recent claims suggest that working for eight hours a day actually results in poor productivity, and can consequently end in severe health issues. 

One Swedish company that has decided to try the shorter hours scheme is app developer Filimundus. Linus Feldt, the CEO of the company, said: “The eight-hour workday isn’t as effective as one would think. To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the workday more endurable. At the same time, we are finding it hard to manage our private life outside of work.”

Another company is Brath, an SEO specialist startup that opted for the shorter workdays three years ago.  “The reason is that we actually care about our employees, we care enough to prioritise their time with the family, or doing something else they love doing,” said the company’s CEO, Maria Brath. 

In correlation to achieving a higher level of productivity in fewer hours, companies in Sweden also banned its workers from using social media (excluding specific social media roles). A 2013 study by the Wall Street Journal claimed that tweeting cost American companies $112 billion per year, and is seen as a silent productivity killer. Change that to Instagram in the GCC, and the figure might be just as startling. 

The six-hour workday has been trialled elsewhere in the past when Finland introduced the experiment between 1996-1998, which at the time proved to beneficial to men and woman, as it provided them more time with family, or for exercising or cleaning their homes.

It also resulted in fewer conflicts between work and family responsibilities – which is one of the aims Swedish based companies doing the experiment hope to achieve. 

Prior to Finland experimenting with the six-hour working days, Kellogg’s, an American multinational food manufacturing company, attempted the same experiment in 1930.

Work schedules were changed from three eight-hour shifts, to four six-hour shifts, whilst paying the workers a little less to subsidise for the extra workers hired. The success was evident as results included large reductions in overhead and labour costs. In 1935, Kellogg claimed that the unit cost of production “is so lowered we can afford to pay as much for six hours as we formerly paid for eight” as a result of the experiment’s success. 

If past achievement is anything to go by, it’s a wonder as to why other countries haven’t expressed an interest in the six-hour workday already.

The challenges for Dubai if it were to move to six-hour workdays would come in the difference of culture from European countries such as Sweden and Finland.

Morning meetings are very popular in the Gulf. Often a day does not begin before you’ve met your colleagues or clients for a coffee. Evening events and after work networking is also a big thing, a cultural norm even in the modern day business world of Dubai. If both morning meetings and evening events were considered part of the job, then how many hours in a six-hour workday would someone actually be in the office? Maybe three, at the most. 

Coincidently, the UAE ranks 14th on the happiness index set by the UN’s Global Initiative report. But it has aims of becoming one of the top ten happiest cities. Introducing a six-hour workday would surely get the thumbs up from locals and expats alike. 

A 2013 poll conducted by regional job site Bayt.com found that 75 per cent of people in the UAE believe that a good work/life balance is a very important source of motivation, with 60 per cent claiming their current employers offered support for them to achieve this.

The vice president for sales at Bayt.com, Suhail Masri, said: “Our survey’s results show that companies need to be doing more to help boost levels of motivation for the employees, specifically on the work/life balance front, as that’s what matters to most professionals.”

With the secondary aim of the six-hour workday to improve the work and life balance of the employees – the primary reason is productivity – it would make a lot of sense for Dubai based companies to adapt the scheme.

Another statement from Masri suggests that the scheme would not only benefit workers, but companies too. “Retaining quality performers simply adds to increased productivity and morale, while reducing the associated costs of turnover”, Masri said.

As Dubai continues its aim to be one of the world’s central business hubs, it’s hard to imagine that working fewer hours a week could actually improve productivity. However, based on the facts it’s a very plausible idea that could well coexist with such high ambitions.

It’s not known if any Gulf countries plan on giving the shorter working day a trial run, however, it would be interesting to see if Dubai would consider following Gothenburg’s lead, and do something out of the ordinary. After all, Dubai has never been afraid to be different. 

Image credit: pranavbhasin.com