13 December 2021 15:06:34 IST

Longer weekends are the next economic battleground

UAE is slicing half a day off the working week while companies experiment with shorter hours.

The United Arab Emirates has staked out a new economic battlefield — longer weekends. The Gulf state is slicing half a day from the working week as it aligns its official days off with much of the world. A lasting shift to shorter hours would require other countries to follow, even as technology makes it harder to log off. But following a global pandemic that has upended regular working practices, employees may be more willing to swap labour for leisure.

The UAE’s decision to shorten the workweek to four-and-a-half days has several practical explanations. Shifting the current Friday-Saturday weekend to Saturday and Sunday aligns the financial and business hub with most other countries. But the UAE cannot make the traditional Muslim day of worship a full shift. As a result, work will end at noon on Fridays.

The UAE’s main motivation is probably to differentiate itself from Saudi Arabia, which is trying to lure international companies from Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Riyadh moved its weekend to Friday-Saturday, from Thursday-Friday, back in 2013, but religious sensitivities will probably prevent it from following the UAE’s lead.

Post-pandemic shift

A shorter work week also taps into a broader rethink of office hours. Consumer giant Unilever has spent the past year trialling a four-day week for staff in New Zealand; financial technology firm Bolt launched a similar experiment in September. The idea is that happier and better-rested employees will be more productive in the hours they spend at work, making up for the shorter week.

But such examples are still the exception rather than the norm. Also, people working for international companies in Abu Dhabi and Dubai say they currently take calls or reply to emails from colleagues in other countries on Fridays. Extending the official weekend won’t remove that pressure. Moreover, technology means people can increasingly work from anywhere, at any time.

The convention of giving workers two official days off dates back to the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Around the same time, John Maynard Keynes predicted that future gains in productivity would enable people to work no more than 15 hours a week. The economist underestimated our expanding demands for material comforts. However, Covid-19 has prompted some people to revisit that trade-off. If the UAE is right, longer weekends may in future prove as much of a lure for international workers as low taxes.