Sri Lanka’s public service switching to a four-day workweek isn’t exactly the type of progressive experiment now underway in many European countries. Instead, the closure of Government offices on Fridays over the next three months is borne out of necessity, nay, out of desperation. The long weekends our public sector is about to enjoy aren’t exactly designed to deliver better work-life balance; it is merely indicative of the Government struggling to cut corners wherever it can to better manage the burden of its bloated public sector.
The four-day workweek has been creating some buzz around the world as the nature of work is being redefined post-pandemic. The flexible and remote working arrangements that companies were forced to test and deploy during Covid-19, offered plenty of proof that work as we knew it could change and evolve while meeting the same output. This was founded on the premise that reduced work hours, in fact, made employees more efficient by uplifting their morale, and consequently boosting productivity. Earlier this month, the UK began a large pilot project involving 3,300 employees in 70 companies in various sectors where over the next six months, workers are slated to maintain 100% of their current productivity with 80% of their current hours, at 100% of their current pay.
Be that as it may, in Sri Lanka, the shorter workweek means that a million public workers, sans essential services, will not commute to work, nor occupy their office buildings – thus saving the country a bit of much needed energy and fuel. There’s also been a peculiar request that on their new day off, State employees should occupy themselves growing some food crops – it remains to be seen how a set of home gardens begun by untrained farmers would help solve the looming national food crisis.
The flipside to the decision is the potential it has to impact the private sector, which is likely to be rendered unproductive by facing delays in critical tasks that involve Government offices. Those that engage with the public sector know well that the prospect of five days of work now being crammed into four days is unlikely at best. The coming weeks will see private companies raising lament about the holdup in critical information, documentation and processes between Thursday evening and Monday morning.
The true toll of a shorter workweek will be when we take on our customer personas. Many of us will find shorter workweeks hard to get accustomed to, especially in a world where customers are used to being served 24×7; where many are never truly unavailable or gone off grid. It is a cultural shift to recognise that output and delivery matter more than physical presence at workplaces. Any move to shorten the workweek also goes hand in hand with introducing more technology to increase productivity and having the right systems to monitor performance.
Perhaps the private sector too may consider a shorter week with fewer hours? The future of work is evolving, and around the world younger workers tend to favour greater flexibility and better hours that allow them the pursuit of their own interests during non-work hours. Sri Lanka is in the midst of a talent exodus from many critical and impactful sectors, and modern approaches to workplaces could be just one temptation that retains talent within the country.