The 4-day week and the shape of post-pandemic work in Asia

Recently in a number of countries, politicians have raised the idea of post-pandemic economies adopting a 4-day workweek as a way of boosting tourism and leisure spending, making offices safer places, and addressing problems with gender inequality and work-life balance. The discussion is now moving to Asia.

First, the idea has come up in Singapore, which is currently working through a “Fortitude Budget,” which “will provide support for businesses and workers to adapt, transform and seize new opportunities,” and provide “support for households and the community to cope with the disruptions and seize new opportunities in adversity.”

Among the ideas proposed during the discussion was the adoption of a 4-day week in Singapore:

Speaking during the debate on the Fortitude Budget, Nominated MP Mohamed Irshad highlighted that the pandemic has forced Singaporeans to adapt to new working arrangements within a very short period of time.

As Singapore prepares for phase two of its reopening, it should not return to its old ways of working, but instead build on the progress.

“I propose moving away from the traditional five-day work week to a four-day work week with the option of working from home on the fifth day, and even having a flexi-hours work model,” said Mr Irshad.

This is a discussion that’s happening in a larger conversation around changing work, and policy experiments by companies in Singapore. In 2018, the Straits Times reported on efforts by major companies to introduce more flexible work:

According to Mr Vikas Verma, director of talent, rewards and performance at human resource solutions firm Aon Singapore, work-life balance is one of the five most common topics that come up during employee engagements, second only to compensation and career progression….

In Singapore, many firms have now begun to offer flexible work arrangements, such as by allowing employees to knock off early on Fridays or to work from home one day a week. German-based European multinational software firm SAP, for example, allows employees to redistribute their work hours across the work week….

[A]ccording to freelance financial planner and HR consultant Shan Li, there needs to be changes in Singapore’s work culture before companies can implement more flexible working styles or a radical new way of working, such as the 32-hour work week.

“Unfortunately in Singapore, working long hours is often considered the marker of working hard, even though most people are productive for only a few hours a day,” the 57-year-old said.

“For a shorter work week to be successful, you need middle and upper management to rethink the way they manage teams, such as looking at productivity over absolute hours. If managers are conditioned to think that everyone needs to work eight hours a day, five days a week, then it will be impossible for a flexible policy to work even if it’s implemented.”

Second, in the Philippines, “revised interim guidelines issued by the Civil Service Commission (CSC)” have given government employees the ability work from home, stagger their working hours, or adopt a 4-day week (though these are probably longer days not reduced hours).

Policies “allowing government workers to have a four-day workweek and flexi-work arrangements” would be “aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Secretary to the Cabinet Karlo Nograles said yesterday. The private sector, Nograles added, can implement the same scheme to avoid job losses as part of efforts to help businesses and industries cope with the impact of the outbreak on their operations.”

As far as employees in the private sector are concerned, Nograles said the Department of Labor and Employment recently issued a labor advisory that regulates flexi-work arrangements.

The point of the advisory is “to discourage businesses from laying off and retrenching workers and adopting a flexi-work arrangement instead,” he said.

The flexi-work strategy can be applied to the tourism industry, which has been hit hard by the outbreak.

In an interview, Nograles said the government has also been urging the private sector to avoid laying off workers, given the temporary nature of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“At one point we will be able to control this. So what’s happening now in the tourism and travel industry would be considered temporary; because it’s temporary we don’t need to retrench or fire workers,” he said.

As with discussions in Canada and Scotland, this interest hasn’t yet translated into legislation or shaped labor or workplace regulations, but it is another sign that the 4-day week has moved from crazy fringe idea to something that people can discuss more seriously, and it’s quite notable that often-younger legislators are bringing up the idea. It’s also notable that this is happening in Singapore, a place where the cult of overwork is alive and well. The idea of implementing a 4-day week for government employees in the Philippines has been floating around since at least 2018, mainly “to help ease the traffic problem in Metro Manila,” but the idea of extending it to private companies is newer. More generally, the fact that these discussions are happening along with conversations about flexible work and permanent work from home options (something that some Asian companies have said they’ll adopt after successfully trialing it during the pandemic), increases the odds that we’ll see more trials in the future.

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