Is a four-day work week possible for Singapore?

By Rachel Teng

GovInsider breaks down the ongoing debate surrounding whether companies in Singapore should adopt four-day work weeks, and how this will affect workforce productivity.

Four-day work weeks require an ecosystem level change, says Sam Neo, Founder and Chief People Officer of HR Consultancy People Mentality Inc. Image: Canva

The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live and work across the world. The past two years have left a lasting imprint on how people define work in their lives – and companies have to adapt alongside their employees’ changes in expectations.

In line with this, the push for a four-day work week has gained unprecedented global traction. The governments of Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and even workaholic Japan have truncated their work weeks in a bid to improve work-life balance and productivity.

In Singapore, the debate has been in talks at the parliamentary level since July 2021. Then Minister for Manpower Dr Tan Lee Seng said that “any employer wishing to pilot a four-day work week with their staff can do so, as there is no legal impediment to implementing such a scheme”, but the government has yet to officially implement or pilot it at the state level.

The implementation of four-day work weeks involves many considerations for all involved. For example, can such working arrangements guarantee employers the same productivity levels or higher? Will slashed working hours spell pro-rated paychecks or longer working days for employees? Will this further blur the line between work-life boundaries?

Most recently in September 2022, Minister of State Gan Siow Huang stated in Parliament that the results of four-day work weeks in other states “appear to be mixed”. Indeed, countries like Sweden only had 6 per cent of its voters in favour of shortening its work weeks after its pilot in 2015. Elsewhere, about 86 per cent of 41 UK companies said they were “likely” or “extremely likely” to retain their four-day work week policy after a six-month trial earlier this year.

GovInsider breaks down the key considerations for both the employers and employees of the lion city when it comes to adopting four-day work weeks.

‘Ecosystem level’ change required

According to a 2022 global work trend report by software company Microsoft, employees now have a new “worth it” equation. 57 per cent of employees in Asia say they are more likely to prioritise their health and well-being over work, as compared to before the pandemic.

What the human resources industry calls “The Great Reshuffle” is still ongoing, as more than half of Gen Z and Millennial workers (55 and 56 per cent respectively) in Asia are considering changing employers within the year as they realign their priorities.

In response to this, some companies in Singapore have already taken the first step to conduct standalone trials of four-day work weeks within their own companies. One of them is a family dentistry franchise, DP Dental.

“The four-day work week actually helped us attract a new crop of employees, especially parents with young children,” said its founder and CEO, Ms Louisa Lee, at a recent signing ceremony hosted by the Adult Learning Institute of the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Lee shared that prior to the implementation of four-day work weeks, the company’s standard turnover rate was 8 to 12 employees annually. But that number dropped by three to four within a year post-implementation.

In February 2022, the Ministry of Manpower revealed in Parliament that about 1 in 10 establishments offered “compressed work weeks” as a flexible work arrangement (FWA) to their employees in 2020.

Compressed work weeks are a specific form of four-day work weeks where the total hours worked in a week do not change. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair & Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) has publicly listed a few ways in which employers can seek to implement compressed work weeks. These include taking the fifth or tenth day off, 12-hour shift schedules under a three-week cycle, or 9-hour work days.

But TAFEP also disclaims that compressed work schedules may not be suitable for organisations that involve daily deadlines, or those that require employees to be physically present at the job site at all times.

Agreeing, Sam Neo, Founder and Chief People Officer of HR Consultancy People Mentality Inc, says that FWAs are not applicable to all industries, such as the manufacturing, or even client-facing sectors.

“It’s an ecosystem-level change that is required,” he says. “Assuming one company adopts a four-day work week. What happens if clients try to reach its employees on the fifth or other days?”

Neo adds that four-day work weeks run the risk of adding more stress or causing working hours to go up for employees as work-life boundaries potentially blur. “People might spend the weekend covering their work. Without proper ecosystem-level change, the expectation will still be to produce the same output as five [normal working] days,” Neo says.

Elsewhere, in the UK, HR professionals are advocating for a “100-80-100” model, where workers retain 100 per cent of their pay, put in 80 per cent of their traditional working time, in exchange for maintaining 100 per cent of their productivity.

Many more European countries have chosen to take up four-day work weeks as compared to Asia, Neo points out. One reason for this could be the difference in political structures – most Asian countries are not welfare states. “People have to work harder to have their basic needs covered, such as pensions, temporary unemployment,” he says.

Neo believes that cultural nuances will affect how four-day work weeks are rolled out in the first place. “In Asian culture, we are always very performance-driven. We also feel bad when we leave our work to people, and we don’t want people to cover our work when we are away. It’s not healthy, obviously, but it’s a natural tendency, at least within our culture,” he says.

Flexible working arrangements come in many forms

The Singapore government recognises the need for rethinking working arrangements to strengthen business resilience, as well as improve talent retention and attraction. In May 2022, the Ministry of Manpower and its Tripartite Partners announced their support of FWAs as a permanent feature of the workplace even as the country moves forward from the pandemic.

But Minister Gan emphasised that employers should adopt a “flexible mindset” when considering FWAs. “A four-day work week is one of the many types of FWAs,  and [we] strongly encourage employers to be open to FWAs in all its various forms to identify and adopt those that best meet their unique business and workers’ needs,” Gan said in Parliament in September 2022.

At the end of the day, flexibility and choice are what really underpins these discussions, says Neo. “It’s not so much about whether it’s four or five-day work weeks. People want to have the flexibility of time to deal with their personal matters – especially for young families who might have sick kids or elderly parents.”

He emphasises that flexibility could mean different things for different people, based on their phase of life. “We all have different backgrounds and needs. Many standard benefits are not utilised by all employees, and companies are slowly realising this. This is why we increasingly see things like flexible benefits that might be much more effective at making employees feel cared for.”

At his company, for example, all confirmed employees receive a fixed sum a year which can be used for anything that ultimately contributes to employee productivity. Those who are fresh out of school might use it to purchase workplace gadgets or fitness classes, while those with families might use it to relieve their insurance or child care budgets.

It is also increasingly common for many companies to have employees do things that are not officially work-related on their fifth day. These could come in the form of innovation days, social bonding days, or wellness days, says Neo.

Where to begin?

While countries across the globe continue to explore if four-day work weeks ultimately fit the needs of their workforces, Neo believes that governments should always take the step forward first in order for ecosystem-level change to trickle down into behavioural ones at the personal level.

“If we really want to aim towards a four-day work week as a country, we need to start implementing it from a school level as well, because once we are hardwired to think of our workflows as a five-day schedule, it’s hard to change this overnight when we go into the working world,” Neo says. Raffles Institution has implemented four-day study weeks for its junior college students since the start of 2021, for instance.

At the end of the day, this discourse should be used as a means to drive further discussions about productivity, Neo says.

“How can we produce more output with maybe fewer resources or working hours? How can we reduce stress? How can we help employees be happier at work? It’s all very interconnected, and if you ask me what ties all of this together, it is the flexibility of working arrangements.”