Techtalk - Productivity: Should there be a four-day work week?

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 27, 2022 - July 03, 2022.
Techtalk - Productivity: Should there be a four-day work week?
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One of the latest fads in the tech world is the four-day work week. Tech start-ups, tech giants like Microsoft, governments and city councils globally are implementing or trialling a four-day work week system. In Malaysia, tech companies like Piktochart Sdn Bhd and Twistcode Technologies Sdn Bhd have implemented it as well.

The goal of the four-day work week is to increase worker productivity and mental well-being. But not everyone agrees with this system, of course. In China, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd founder Jack Ma is known for touting the “996” working culture, where people work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

“How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?” said Ma, according to a report by CNN. This view is apparently common in the China tech industry.

Digital Edge spoke to a few tech industry players in Malaysia to get their thoughts on this matter.

 

 1  Flexibility is the key

Vernon Chua, CEO of data analytics service provider Innergia Labs, has been running a hybrid-work model since the pandemic. Employees work from home for three days and spend two days in the office. It worked so well that, at one point, he was considering doing everything online.

“We are a cloud company, so almost everything could be moved online,” says Chua. But then he thought about team camaraderie, which would be negatively affected if the employees did not have a physical space to work together. “That’s why we maintained this hybrid system,” he adds.

Ultimately, for him, it is not about having a four- or five-day work week. A key work value for Innergia Labs is timeliness, which means everyone is accountable to each other to deliver their work on time.

“This time is typically negotiated among all stakeholders. When we negotiate the timeline, this means we generally don’t have to work on nights and weekends,” says Chua.

“This also means flexibility because as long as the work is completed, we don’t really care how our people spend their time. It gives them time to focus on the more meaningful aspects of life, which is our faith, family and friends.”

Chua says this is the focal point for the company. “I find it quite gratifying that many of our team members have become the primary caregivers to their ageing parents or family members because of the flexibility we give them,” he says.

The two days in the office are known as “collaboration days”, where the teams have meetings. But when they are at home, the company does not track their activities.

“What we’re really looking for is output. If they meet their timelines, they don’t even need to apply for leave to go and do their own thing. With this arrangement, we have more flexibility without sacrificing productivity,” says Chua.

This could be considered a shift in the understanding of what productivity is. In the past, some might think that one can only be productive in the office. But the pandemic has changed that belief, Chua says. One can be productive at home as well.

For that to happen, however, there must be trust between the employer and employee. “If the company has set the right culture and expectations, the employer should trust the team to deliver wherever they are,” he says.

That is not to say that everyone should work from home, of course. Flexibility is the key, emphasises Chua. Not all sectors can do this too. Tech companies that do not need to service clients on a daily basis might find it easier to do so than retail businesses or even the government sector. Tech companies could also find it easier to introduce flexible work arrangements because the work can be done digitally.

However, technology is a competitive and rapidly developing sector. Can tech companies afford to have fewer working hours? Or is Alibaba’s “996” culture necessary?

“For me, in the tech sector, working smart is better than working hard. A lot of menial work can now be automated. When you do that, you can be far more productive,” says Chua.

Working extra hours does not necessarily equate with higher productivity. It could be encouraging a “look busy” culture, Chua says. “This is the pretence of being busy without actually doing real work. I’ve seen that in action before.”

Introducing flexible work hours — or even four-day work week schemes — could also attract talent. This is especially crucial in the tech industry, where competition is fierce. The younger generation seek for something more from their work life, says Chua. Work-life balance is important to them.

“They want more than just drudgery, where they come to the office daily to do the same thing. They want more in life. They don’t want to burn out. Work is no longer just for them to find a rice bowl. It’s a place to find meaning and purpose.”

To attract talent in the tech industry, they will have to offer perks like this, especially for start-ups. “We cannot compete with the big boys in terms of salary. I’ve had many people tell me they like working here because they have time to look after their family. They couldn’t do it in their previous roles.”

 

 2  Use your time wisely

Nurazam Malim, CEO of supercomputing company Twistcode, caused quite a stir when he announced that the company would be introducing a four-day work week last July. The overall work hours and employee salaries remain unchanged.

Nurazam took this bold move because he noticed that productivity was, in general, low on Fridays, owing to the long lunch hour break. He also wanted to prevent burnout, which he started noticing among his colleagues during the pandemic.

“People were burnt out because they worked from home and couldn’t go out. They spent a lot of time in front of screens,” he says.

After a discussion, Nurazam told his colleagues that they would not have to work on Fridays. Even now, however, he notices that many still break that rule. He says that is fine because the point is that work on Friday is not forced. He does not follow this rule either, since “business owners work 24/7”, he says.

“The whole idea is that they can be prepared for work better on Monday. If you overwork on Friday, you get Monday blues. It’s not effective,” says Nurazam.

“I also want to make it nine-to-five only in terms of working hours. But programmers don’t do that, unfortunately. They work from 3pm to 4am. It’s not good for the body.”

Nurazam believes that productivity correlates with the amount of “me time” an employee has. In the traditional workplace, there might be an expectation for employees to sit in front of their computers to be productive. But that is less applicable today, he says.

“The ‘me time’ routine is like a recess, where sometimes people sleep for a few minutes in the afternoon just to refresh themselves.”

Some people will take advantage of the four-day work week, of course. But Nurazam hopes employees will use it in the right way. “During the interviews, we already state clearly that you won’t be micromanaged. You can use this opportunity to upskill yourself,” says Nurazam. This is essential for the industry, since technological changes occur so rapidly.

 

 3  Potentially introducing bad habits

Ng Sang Beng, CEO of Aemulus Corp Sdn Bhd, which designs and develops automated test equipment for the semiconductor industry, admits that he is not very familiar with the four-day work week system. Generally, he is against the idea.

Ng has read about how some companies are tracking their employees who work from home. This violates their privacy, he says. It also encourages cheating.

“Some people I know have two laptops. They’re watching a show on one while working on the other. On the work laptop, they use the mouse to make circles (because they are tracked). What are we actually encouraging with this system? We could be bringing negative values into work life,” says Ng.

He also believes it could be difficult for people to focus when they are working from home. “For instance, some people might be watching the stock exchange while they’re working. This is the reality,” he says.

Of course, not everyone would misuse the system that way, Ng emphasises, but he is concerned about these matters. Another aspect that he is worried about is the reduced socialising in the workplace with a shorter work week or remote work. Humans are social beings, says Ng, and it is important for people to learn how to interact with each other.

“It’s important for them to interact with others, accept diversity of opinions and learn how to deal with conflict,” he says.