To align its economy with global markets and gain greater international business, the United Arab Emirates made a strategic announcement to switch the weekend to Saturday and Sunday.
The UAE had previously observed a Friday-Saturday weekend. Starting in 2022, the public sector will operate four-and-a-half days workweek and private companies will be free to choose their own working week.
The weekend will now kick off on Friday afternoon so resident Muslims are still able to leave work by 12pm so they can attend the afternoon prayer. Following in the footsteps of the federal government is the emirate of Sharjah, which has chosen to mandate a three-day weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to align with international operations while keeping Friday free for religious practice.
Countries like Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland have already started to trial a four-day workweek with overwhelming success.
For example, Iceland kicked off a pilot programme between 2015 and 2019 with one per cent of its working population across the public sector. During this time productivity stayed the same or improved and researchers found that workers reported feeling less stressed and at lower risk of burnout. Today 86 per cent of Iceland’s workforce have moved to shorter hours for same pay or have gained the right to.
In response to the challenges of Covid-19, Spain will experiment with a 32-hour workweek over three years, without changing workers’ salaries. It is expected that 200 companies will participate in the pilot programme.
The UAE’s decision to embrace a shorter workweek is a natural step as the country has long embraced flexible working culture across a number of industries. This new shift reaffirms the UAE’s stance on encouraging people to work from home to cater to the new schedule and balance work-life priorities when they need to.
This change will also greatly improve equal employment opportunities, especially for people who have family or caregiver responsibilities.
This shift has proven to be a major win for gender equality in the workforce. According to the World Economic Forum, the gender pay gap starts to expand after women have children. This policy has the potential to help support working mothers to balance work and child-rearing needs while remaining on the same level as the rest of their colleagues.
This change in the UAE has had some mixed reviews from businesses. According to a recent Mercer poll, nearly a third of companies are concerned about the impact of being out of sync with other countries in the Middle East. However, on the plus side, this shift will make the UAE more attractive to foreign investment and talent at a time it’s growing its competitive advantages with other regional nations, such as Saudi Arabia.
For the banking sector, this was a welcome change as it aligns with the operating hour of global markets. Turning to the food & beverage and hospitality sectors, adjusting to the new weekend will provide an increased opportunity — an extra half-day on Friday, and aligning the majority of the population to the same weekend will help boost revenue and allow the industries to cater for more diverse residents and tourists.
A gaining trend during the pandemic has been ‘the great resignation’ and employment is at an all-time high globally and across different industries. There are a number of drivers behind this new phenomenon. For starters, workers have reached a breaking point after months of high workloads and stretched resources, especially in tech, e-commerce and healthcare industries. Secondly, the uncertainty and limited revenue in certain industries impacted by the pandemic resulted in mass layoffs. Lastly, for some people, this was considered a great opportunity to either change job roles, retire early, or leave the corporate world to start their own business. Now more than ever there is a scramble for talent and the UAE’s shorter workweeks will be a competitive way to attract and retain a talented workforce.
Overall, the longer weekend is the next great disruption of hybrid working and has had proven positive impacts. The UAE’s openness to test new ideas reflects how it is emerging as a truly agile nation. It is clear this change is a progressive shift which will not only help the UAE attract and retain talent, but also improve work-life balance and mental health across its workforce besides increasing productivity.
From an economic perspective, the new workweek reflects the UAEs’ strategic position on the global economic map, connecting international businesses to the country and region.
This shift will improve finance, trade, and economic transactions with the majority of countries around the world, while strengthening relations with thousands of multinational as well as local companies.
While the weekend shift may be disruptive initially, I think the overall benefits will shine bright in the long term.
Hessa Al Ghurair is an HR expert.
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