You could be forgiven for not having read the Nationalist Party’s electoral manifesto document. It contains a daunting 553 objectives the PN would aim to complete if elected to Government, typed in a tiny font, and, at the time of writing, only available in Maltese.
But hidden away among the myriad pledges is one that is gaining traction across the world:
“We will incentivise businesses to switch to a four-day workweek.”
While it might sound like pie in the sky, the four-day workweek, in which workers do not have to take a pay cut for working reduced hours, has been trialled in several countries over the past few years, no doubt spurred on by disruptions to the traditional Monday-to-Friday, 9-5 cycle caused by the pandemic.
In 2021, researchers in Iceland announced that trials run between 2015 and 2019 by Reykjavík City Council and the national government, which included more than 2,500 workers, were an “overwhelming success”. According to the researchers, many workers ended up switching to a four-day workweek permanently.
“Workers reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved. They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores,” according to a BBC report.
In 2019, Microsoft Japan experimented with reducing the workweek by one day, which led to a 40 per cent boost in productivity. Similar trials have taken place in Spain, Germany and New Zealand.
Given that Malta is typically behind the curve on adopting progressive labour policies, it is difficult to find a Maltese company that has at least tried out the four-day workweek. Nevertheless, BusinessNow.mt managed to find two companies: one that is in the process of transitioning to a four-day workweek, and another that is strongly considering trying it out.
Switch digital marketing agency first reduced the hours of its staff in 2020 out of necessity, since the company’s wage bill became unsustainable when the pandemic hit. However, the company took the opportunity to experiment further and decided to replace the traditional one-week ‘shutdown’ in August with a four-day workweek in that month.
“The main hypothesis is this: if we can organise ourselves better, we can do the work we did in five days in four instead. It’s not that we were doing things badly, but we feel that a more rested and focused team works better overall. And more rest promotes this,” said Switch’s founder and CEO Richard Muscat Azzopardi, adding that the move did not hurt the company’s productivity.
“With a three-day weekend, you can do all the regular chores that most of us tend to pack into a Saturday on Friday instead, and get two full days to rest, getting to Monday in a much more productive mood. This worked for most of the team, but it did not work for everyone, some people did not manage to fit all their work into the four days.”
Mr Azzopardi said that Switch has now adopted a policy of giving its staff one four-day workweek a month, with the aim of eventually making the policy permanent.
Meanwhile, Grands Suites Hotel Residences & Spa in Gzira is in the process of finalising plans to trial reduced hours for its staff.
“Today we live in a fast-paced world, in which everyone wants instant gratification and to get a reply straight away. Allowing staff to switch off for one extra day per week is something that we think will be beneficial in the long run. Personally, I think a four–day working week would stimulate the economy more, and allow families to plan more activities together instead of being tied to the constraints of a busy weekend,” said Grands’ head of marketing Drew Henry.
“People are understanding that life is to be lived and enjoyed. We shouldn’t work to live, or live to work. People need downtime. I think the pandemic has opened the door to more working from home, and has directed the conversation towards how we value a balanced split between working and enjoying life.”
Nevertheless, both insist that switching to a four-day workweek is not something that can be done in isolation, without changing any other company policies.
“The biggest problem is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so the best we can do is to offer a solution that works the best for our set of employees. If I had to pinpoint one word, then it would probably be flexibility. We need to offer a work environment that gives our employees the flexibility to work in ways that suit their lives better. It might be tempting to say that four-day weeks are better for everyone, but in some cases a shorter day over five days might actually be better for others. Others yet might prefer to work a certain number of hours, or give a fixed output. The options are limitless,” said Mr Muscat Azzopardi.
“And to make it work, we also need to communicate better with our clients, but to be fair to them, most of our regular clients have been getting on board with it and respected our days off. In terms of general efficiency, once we do switch to a permanent four-day week we feel that our work will become more efficient not only in how it’s done, but even in how it’s moved around within the agency. This will give our clients even better results at the end of the day,” he added.
Given that Grands is a hotel, as opposed to a fully remote marketing agency like Switch, the challenges are even more complex, as observed by Mr Henry.
“We operate seven days a week, 365 days a year. So we would need to spread staff across different days to ensure we’re not under or short-staffed. For our backend office team, it’s likely to be unfeasible, but by introducing working from home on certain days of the week we can try to negate the effects of worker burnout.
“There also needs to be transparency across the business and for everyone to understand what they feel they’re missing out on by working five days as opposed to working four days per week,” he said.
Ultimately, is Malta ready for the switch to a four-day workweek?
I think the Government could do more to promote a healthier work/life balance. A four-day working week, together with working from home, have also been proven to be better for the environment, so it can only be a good thing moving forward,” Mr Henry concluded.
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